WCA 50th Anniversary Interviews: Suzanne Benton (Part 1)

Suzanne Performs The Bengali Bride

When I asked Suzanne what inspired her for more than 70 years of making art. She smiles big before replying, “I’m in awe of life.” I smiled knowingly.  One only has to flip through her robust catalogue of interdisciplinary work, in order to witness the commitment to a life of wonder, needed to create.  

Benton has built an illustrious career that has spanned more than 32 countries, oftentimes, with her daughter at her side.  She is a keeper and teller of many stories and her fervent activism on the behalf of women around the world, has been a voice for the voiceless. 

Benton, a metal mask maker, mask performance artist, printmaker, and painter was born January 21, 1936, in Brooklyn, NY during the Great Depression. With the men off to war it was “a women’s town.” Perhaps this is where she first learned how to be courageous. Witnessing women working, leading, building community, and thriving while men were off to war was somewhat of a foreshadowing of her future.

Activism is the spirit that seems to drive her. She is the current President of WCA-FL, after reviving the chapter in 2019. Benton went on to lead the largest Women’s March on Washington in St. Petersburg, FL on January 21, 2017.

Her work has been featured in Who’s Who In American Art, Feminists Who Changed America, and purchased by Harvard’s Schlesinger Library Archive.

Suzanne Benton’s Performances through the years.

Three years after reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique she recalls the moment that she was instantaneously transformed into a feminist.

When NOW’s founding had been announced by Betty and the other founders of NOW were featured on the front cover of the NY Times Book Review Section, I wrote to Betty via the NY Times. In reply, I received a letter on NOW stationary, became a member of NOW.”

The immediacy she felt after receiving that letter on NOW stationary catapulted her into action. In 1971 Suzanne formed both the Central and Western Connecticut branches of NOW.   

She is widely known for her feminist mask tales. Often drawing from stories of women in the Bible, and around the world, she uses her masks to tell the truth of their lives.

During our meeting she grabs the mask she uses in her “Bengali Bride” performance. Without missing a beat, she immediately places the mask in front of her face and begins telling the story. I was immediately pulled into the tale of sorrow and servitude faced by the young Bengali Bride. It was purely magical.

Mary Church Terrell Life Cycle, monoprint with Chine collé, 27 1/8x 19 7/8 inches, 2018

Experiencing her 70 year catalogue feels novel-esque. Her latest series of paintings, All About Color, were inspired by the safe inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Continuum, oil on canvas, 40×30 inches, All About Color series, 2021

The paintings are luminescent, vibrant, and other worldly in their construction. These were the paintings that have been “pouring out of her” since the pandemic she says. 

Although the pandemic was, and still is, hard for most of us. I found it interesting that she chose to focus on bright beautiful colors instead of venturing into a more somber palette. 

However, with someone who is writing a memoir entitled “Spirit of Hope,” I wouldn’t expect anything less. 

“We can never lose hope,” she says. 

Especially when there is so much work to be done.

You can learn more about Suzanne and her work at http://suzannebentonartist.com and  https://www.veteranfeministsofamerica.org/vfa-pioneer-histories-project-suzanne-benton