News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

‘Hug’ book a sign of the times for Sisters artist

What’s better than a hug? It’s how we greet an old friend, share triumph and compassion, comfort a child, and embrace our significant other.

It wasn’t always that way.

Think back to March of 2020, in the first stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We entered a kind of ‘touch desert’ and were instructed not to hug, shake hands, or touch surfaces that others may have touched, in fear of spreading or contracting the virus,” recalls Sisters artist Paul Alan Bennett.

People masked up, stayed six feet away from each other, and sanitized their hands before unpacking groceries that were delivered to their homes by couriers. Bennett responded by creating dozens of monotype images of people wearing their masks, often embellishing the concept with everything from feathers to suits of armor. Eighty-eight were collected in a self-published book he called “Pandemic Portraits.”

In the spring of 2021, vaccines became available, and there was a sense of relief.

“COVID times were ending,” Bennett said. “The world of touch — our first sense — merged back into our lives. We could now meet in large groups, shake hands, and hug again. We were back in touch.”

After “Pandemic Portraits” was published, the plastic shields came down, people stopped wearing masks, and it seemed that we were done with the pandemic. People greeted one another with hugs, and Bennett captured these hugs in photographs, which he turned into monotypes.

“I got to thinking about the hug theme as a fun series. It didn’t need to have the surreal edge, like a costume, that the masks offered,” Bennett recalled.

At first, the hug itself was enough, “the emotion of the hug and the expression on the face said it all.” For Bennett, photographing people hugging each other was fun, and a good way to return to working with people in the community. He returned to an almost-daily practice of creating monotypes of these images at Studio 6000 in Sisters.

The next logical step seemed to be gathering many new images into a book to follow up on “Pandemic Portraits.” A book of hugs! The joyful momentum was building, but the events of the day were not all blue skies and happiness.

As COVID persisted, with all of its variants, people wondered if perhaps we shouldn’t hug quite yet. In a world still filled with anxieties, Bennett said, “it felt more like a time that called for self-care.” So the artist asked his subjects to give themselves a hug.

“Loving yourself, paying attention to yourself and your needs to survive these times were important. People enjoyed doing that, and it was accompanied by a lot of laughter,” he said.

Then came the news: the war in Ukraine, school shootings, the economy, floods, drought, and natural disasters.

It seemed like the hug theme needed to show elements of grief, loss, and self-protection. Bennett grappled with the need for a hug that depicted more than a happy release from the captivity of a mask.

“How could the hugs express the ideas that reflect these times?” he asked.

The compassionate artist created more hug images, each of which reflected the turmoil of our times. “Besides hugging one another or themselves, what other things do we embrace that give us a sense of connection: our pillows, our clothing, our dogs and cats, even our coffee cups, and the activities that we enjoy,” he said. “This gives us some solace and connection during these times. We hug what we love – a person, a thing, an activity.”

Thus was created “HUG: A Visual Chronicle of Our Need to Touch.” Bennett envisions this book – his third after “Night Skies” and “Pandemic Portraits” – as a hug in itself. “Often we buy books with the thought that we want to give them to others. Give someone a ‘HUG!’ It’s a good play on words, not just giving someone a book that you like, but a message. A hug. Everyone deserves a hug.”

Bennett is an artist and an art teacher who for years has created meaningful artwork that is both traditional and contemporary. He is known for his “knit” style that emerged after he painted a wool glove, purchased at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Using opaque and translucent watercolor, he creates a bridge between surface design and traditional and contemporary methods of painting and printmaking. Bennett is continually inspired by the world around him and his love for art history.

He studied fine art and ceramics at The Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore and received a master’s in Greek history from the University of La Verne in Athens. He has had more than 25 one-man shows and his work has frequently been used for book and CD covers and magazine illustrations. After retiring from teaching art at Central Oregon Community College, Bennett continues his creative journey, including publication of three books.

As with his previous two books, Bennett is starting a Kickstarter campaign to publish this one. Information on the Kickstarter campaign will be made available once the project is approved by the crowdfunding site.

Bennett will be the featured artist at Sisters Gallery & Frame during the Fourth Friday Artwalk on August 26. Visitors can meet the artist, support publication of the book, and purchase signed copies of his previous two books.


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