Joseph Bennett is dancing in his courtyard. It's a particularly chilly night and there isn't any audible music playing, but he moves as if the small gated enclosure were a Broadway stage. It's possible that he's simply trying to keep warm while giving his cats their "supervised visit" outside his apartment, but there's no doubt he's enjoying himself.
"Once a dancer, always a dancer," Bennett says with a smile as he herds his two cats up the stairs and back into the warmth of his apartment. He heads into his narrow kitchen, where, in place of cookware, his drawers are brimming with things that most people would consider trash-decapitated dolls and plastic body parts, rusty utensils, spools with no thread, abandoned bird's nests, broken strands of pearls and countless other items that, in the eyes of their original owners, no longer have value. It is here, with these odd materials, that Bennett makes his art.
In art lingo, Bennett's work is described as "assemblage sculpture made from found objects," and people familiar with art history will recognize his style as similar to that of mid-20th century artist Joseph Cornell. To an appreciative average observer, Bennett's pieces might seem like highly evolved versions of grade-school dioramas; to a more dismissive layperson, they might be perceived as nothing more than boxes of junk.
But Bennett sees his work as a kind of art-activism that he hopes might help counteract the wasteful nature of our culture.
"It's a passive way of teaching people about not consuming so much," says Bennett. "I'm charged with the responsibility of making junk or trash look exquisite. I want people to appreciate things they would otherwise throw away."
Bennett's small Hillcrest apartment serves as both his studio and his gallery, and most of the walls and surfaces are covered with his art. Many of the pieces are large and cumbersome-some as big as two or three feet wide and a foot or so deep-but somehow none of it appears obtrusive. His furniture is almost all secondhand, yet the atmosphere is tasteful, cozy and inviting. It's a testament to his success at his day job; he and his life partner run their own interior design business, which Bennett jokes is an exercise in "decorating even larger boxes."
Bennett, 41, has had many different professional incarnations. A classically trained ballet dancer with degrees in business, education and psychology, he grew up in Delaware and spent 10 years working there as a street social worker, doing suicide prevention and literally talking people off of bridges. When that work became emotionally unsustainable, he moved to San Diego and started cleaning houses. He soon began waiting tables, hired a life coach and became inspired by his then-boyfriend to take an art class at City College. When he saw slides of Joseph Cornell's work, he says, he reacted immediately.
The youngest of eight children, it's easy to suppose Bennett would have an aversion to previously used stuff. Instead, he says it's just the opposite-that he's always been attracted to found objects and had a love for items with character and history.
Almost immediately after his art-class epiphany, Bennett began searching for materials to begin his own sculpting. Scouring different locations, from thrift stores to railroad tracks, he set about looking for objects that had been rejected by others but resonated with him. Seven years later, Bennett has shown his work in local, regional and international galleries, and he's amassed enough random secondhand supplies to keep him working many years into the future.
"I'm blessed that I'm able to live in Southern California and make art and not have to make a living as an artist," says Bennett. "If this is what I did for the rest of my life, I know I'd be perpetually happy."
I arrive at Bennett's apartment thinking I'm going to watch him make art, but he informs me that I'm instead going to be creating my own piece. He tells me I can use whatever I want to make whatever I want; the only rule is I have to actually like my art.
I'm happy to try my hand at his medium, because I share Bennett's aversion to wastefulness and reverence for things with a past. But I'm nervous, too-when given a blank piece of paper, all I can ever put down are words, never pictures. Will I be able to make something good of this?
With some trepidation on my part and what appears to be amusement on his, we proceed to the kitchen where we will work side by side-a first for Bennett, who tells me he has never before shared his work space.
He begins by contemplating the placement of a wooden yak on top of his newest piece, whose base component is an old-fashioned curio cabinet. I start rifling through his supplies and an hour slips by as I assemble my potential items on the counter. I think my piece is about food and body image, but I tell him I have no specific message in mind.
"I just do what pleases me," Bennett says, replacing the yak with some wooden grapes. "If something makes me smile, I kind of have to go with it."
Fair enough. I start playing with the composition of my objects and soon realize that my piece is far too cluttered. I jettison a fake apple, a plastic rooster and a Barbie leg.
I kneel on the kitchen floor to get my piece at eye level, and my concept starts to evolve (I later discover this means my piece will have to be displayed at eye level, which is much easier to do with a canvas than an oblong sculpture made of plastic food, kitchen utensils and disembodied doll parts).
"Assemblage isn't one of the decorative arts," Bennett tells me later. "People don't buy a box of rusty nails and wood and put it over their couch. It just doesn't happen."
Bennett decides the wooden grapes belong on his piece, and we talk about physical assembly. A primary consideration is how a piece will fare while being shipped to far-away galleries.
"Glue is good if you're giving it to Grandma," he says. "The desire is that my pieces stick around for a couple hundred years."
He points out that the materials he uses to attach the pieces together all have to be visually congruent. He would never put shiny new screws into an aged piece of wood-if he did, it would have to mean something specific-so he keeps plenty of rusty old screws and nails on hand.
He hunts for an unobtrusive way to attach the spherical grapes to a plane on his wooden cabinet, eventually settling on copper wire that he'll weave around the stem and insert into two tiny holes he'll bore into the platform with his antique drill. He says he'll probably stick another object over the wire on the bottom so the entire attachment mechanism is completely hidden.
Bennett can hardly conceal his smirk when I admit I haven't even considered how I'm going to get all my elements to stick together, much less invisibly.
"The whole point, my dear, is to show you that it's not as easy as it looks," he says teasingly, before coming over to offer suggestions.
When we break for take-out veggie burgers in the living room, he brings my piece out of the kitchen so I can contemplate it as we eat. He tells me that moving the unfinished pieces around and even turning them upside down can be instrumental for gaining fresh perspective.
"You have to ask yourself after a while if you still believe in a piece," he says. "Everything is subject to change."
We return to the kitchen and I set about attaching my components-with screws and, yes, glue-as he drills a big hole in another plane of his cabinet.
"I love that smell," he sighs, as sawdust flies. "Can you smell it?"
By the time there's nothing for me to do but wait for the glue to dry, I can barely contain my excitement. When I declare that I'm proud of my piece and I no longer believe that writing is the only way I can express myself, his light blue eyes sparkle with delight.
"You're young and single, living in Southern California," he says happily. "You need to be making some art."
Before he drives me home-I came by bicycle and fear my art will not withstand the journey in my backpack-I go back and reconsider his finished works spread throughout his apartment.
"The most rewarding part is when people take more than three seconds to look at it," he says as I linger, expressing my newfound appreciation of their physical integrity.
Bennett grins and hands me a Curious George sticker as a reward for my creative risk-taking.
"So, that's what I do," he says proudly. "And I love every fucking minute of it, I have to tell you."
Joseph Bennett's work is currently on view in DADA, Surrealism & Found Objects at 2CC Gallery in Los Angeles. You can schedule a private studio tour in San Diego by calling 619-683-3805. www.artbybennett.com.