During the month of March, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five women artists whose work is featured in our collection. The project is inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ “Can you name #5WomenArtists?” campaign. Read on to learn more about artist Susan Bennerstrom.
Susan Bennerstrom – the early years
Bellingham-based artist Susan Bennerstrom’s love of art started early. “It’s really all I ever wanted to do,” she recalls. Born in Seattle in 1949, Bennerstrom drew inspiration from her grandmother, an artist working in Chicago. “She was my hero and role model. She showed it was possible to be both a woman and active artist.”
In 1967, she enrolled at Western Washington University in Bellingham to study art. She completed three-and-a-half years before deciding to drop out and hitchhike through Europe pursuing her other passion, travel.
“It was a great art education,” she recalls of the trip. “All the art history I’d been studying came alive.”
After returning to the U.S., Bennerstrom got married and moved to Berkeley, California. She says her intention was to continue her art education, but the young couple couldn’t take on the financial burden. Instead, she got a job and continued to make art as a hobby. She considered being a ceramic artist or weaver before fully immersing herself in chalk pastels.
It wasn’t until her return to Bellingham in 1975 that she embraced 2-D works. Then, in the late 1980s, she began to show her pastel work in Seattle, gaining recognition for her art exploring and depicting light.
Bennerstrom’s work has been exhibited widely, including at the Whatcom Museum. Her piece Haystacks in Balkan Landscape was previously on view in Show of Hands and Just Women. She has also had two solo shows at the Museum, most recently a 2002 retrospective titled Existing Light.
Throughout her career, Susan Bennerstrom has received numerous awards, including a Pollock-Krasner Award in 2004. Of her accolades, she describes the Ballinglen Art Foundation Fellowship, a two-and-a-half-month residency in Ireland, as a highlight.
“The landscape was shockingly beautiful,” she recalls. “There was very dramatic light.”
Light has always played a role in her art. Today, Bennerstrom says she places more emphasis on light as the subject of her work rather than place.
“I rarely put figures in my paintings, as I find that they tend to take over; I prefer to let light and shadow imply the narrative and carry the emotional weight,” she states on her website.
In addition to focusing more on light itself, Bennerstrom’s tools have also changed over the years. In 2008, she moved from chalk pastels to oil paint. She credits local artist Barbara Sternberger with inspiring her to move away from messy, less portable chalk.
She also recently checked a goal off her list – finishing her degree at Western. “I didn’t need a degree, but I wanted it,” she says. So, nearly 50 years later, she returned to Western to complete her last class. She graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Art in December 2018.
Today, her recent works draw inspiration from the light in Morocco. They are set to be shown at the Woodside Braseth Gallery in Seattle. Her work will also appear in Anatomy of a Collection, an upcoming exhibition at the Whatcom Museum.