Elliot Bennett’s “Up Close and Personal” photography exhibit at the West Tisbury library is a rhapsodic experience of her love of the natural world. About the words in her title, Bennett says, “Science is so much of who I am — I love the plants, I birdwatch all the time, and they’re a part of my history — so it’s a very personal subject for me,” Bennett says. For the term “up close,” which a lot of the photographs are, Bennett says, “If you go into nature and stay and look at it … it’s just amazing.”
Looking at the show, you can believe, as she states, “It all started when I was 4. I discovered the joy of the natural world, and wanted to let everyone know how the grandness of the outdoor environment affected me, and to honor my newfound love of nature. I renamed myself Leaf Grass to let people know how special this world was to me.” She writes in her artist statement: “My heroes were Jane Goodall, Marlin from “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” TV show, Johnny Appleseed, and many other naturalists and scientists. With college degrees from Ohio Wesleyan University in zoology, botany, and microbiology, I set out to see the world, and learn more about the complex interactions of the natural world.”
Bennett traveled extensively, studying and banding birds, sailing the Atlantic to take a census of beaked whales, studying lava lizards on the Galapagos Islands, and kayaking in the Pacific while working to protect Californian sea otters and their habitats. “I have collected mushrooms in the Appalachians, planted trees in Costa Rica, and propagated endangered plants in the Susquehanna Valley,” the artist writes, “all the while what I experienced and noticed was being recorded in my journals and photographs.”
Bennett captures the natural world with the keen eye of a scientist and the aesthetic sensibility of an artist. When COVID locked us down, she took the time to look through her past photographs. “It is hard, because these pictures have a story behind each one, but that story doesn’t come through in the photograph,” she says.
For instance, in “Mother Tree,” as we look way up from far below through towering trunks and branches with the sun just peeking through, we sense a grandeur that evokes nature’s beauty and power. Bennett’s personal connection was that she was trying to find the oldest tree in the forest. In “Christmas in the Mountains,” she was standing just before a hike in a field at the base of an enormous mountain, looking up at what seems to be a glorious, endless mass of snow-covered evergreens. “I was just in awe,” Bennett says. “This was incredible, and people don’t get to see this. There is this immensity around you, and I was in awe and wonder.” We have a similar visceral response to her three breathtaking, expansive views of mountain ranges in New Hampshire at different times of year that evoke the very feel of what it would be like to look out on such vistas.
Referring to the photographs with water, Bennett says, “It has been a lot of my life. I grew up sailing, and worked in the Bahamas looking for beached whales.” In one piece, a giant wave cuts across the water rolling up on the beach at Squibnocket. Looking carefully, you can just make out that the tiny speck in the distance is a lone surfer, which emphasizes the power of the ocean. Other aquatic images feel painterly, including the exquisite “Atlantic Doldrums, Early Rise,” where the sun is coming up after a night of storms, and magnificent clouds appear to thrust toward us from the distant horizon. “Atlantic Doldrums, Mid-Day Watch,” taken off the coast of Florida, brings to mind the late 18th to 19th century English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. The sky and clouds — and their reflections — in the barely undulating water create a sensuous, abstract composition of light, color, and form.
Bennett says about the misty “Katama Field,” which is the airfield with the silo of the FARM Institute in the distance, “It’s just one of those crazy mornings. I was standing in a fog bank, and this is how it came out. I shot this with my Nikon, and I’m not sure whether the lens had gotten wet, but it came out looking like a painting.” In fact, this piece, as with others in the show, Bennett printed on canvas, which further enhances their artistic qualities.
Bennett also creates elegant, formal botanical portraits of such plants as viburnum, rose, moonflower, and peony, with a personal connection to having been in her mother’s garden. Likewise, her various bird portraits, including a white ibis, snowy egret, great egret, tri-colored heron, and redhead duck, recall the “up close” term in her exhibit title, as do the two alligators — a young one and a crusty-looking older one — that seem to have their eyes on us. Throughout Bennett’s work, all living elements emit a distinct personality that invites us into their world.
No matter her subject, Bennett welcomes us into her close observation and appreciation of nature in all its wonders. “I hope people will walk away inspired by nature and curious enough to try and look deeply. We tend to move too fast and not look close enough, or we go out for a walk and we’re so in our head, we don’t see what’s around us,” Bennett says.
And while we may not know the personal story behind each photograph, their beauty pulls us into them, to indeed look at them “up close.”
“Up Close and Personal” runs through January at the West Tisbury library. For more information about the art, contact email@example.com.