By Melanie Lee
Author, “A Year In Sedona~Meeting The Muse At Wisdom’s Edge”
(July 16, 2018)
I recently visited the Sedona art studio of my good friend, award-winning watercolorist Karyl Bennett. I’d gotten to know Karyl after we met on a sunny Saturday morning last year when she was a featured artist at one of those fabulous Artist Coffee Talks at Goldenstein Gallery, where she’s been represented since 2006. Karyl’s new work-in-progress is in many ways different from almost anything I’d seen from her and I was mightily intrigued.
A multimedia piece, the new work featured an ambitious marriage of visual concepts illustrating the evolving field of integrative medicine. With a fetching and colorful arrangement of a variety of cancer cells, virus, bacteria and other biological entities strung hopscotch across the canvas, this was a truly original approach for an artistic composition and it reminded me of a news story I read awhile back.
Seems that a little brain organoid was grown from autistic patient skin cells in a small Petri dish by scientists so they could study various and sundry brain functions in that select group. In a nutshell, what they found was a number of neuronal imbalances, too much of this, not enough of that. I wondered if in the future such methods of discovery for all kinds of disorders will become commonplace and if we’ll all know more and more about how our bodies and minds work. But I also wondered if we’ll be able to use that knowledge? If we know more about how our brains work, will we be better able to improve our lives and the lives of others? Can an enhanced sense of the sacred or the beautiful be biologically initiated? Will brain mapping be able to tie together spirit, mind and body? Could we stain brain sections to identify areas that represent the flowering of attitudes, thoughts and feelings? The burgeoning field of neurobiology and neurotherapy deals with such ambitious questions, but probably it will be our grandchildren who will be the ultimate recipients and practitioners of this advanced learning.
For now, perhaps the poets and artists can shed light on such things. Artists like Karyl Bennett. A startlingly powerful example of a woman who’s arrived at wisdom’s edge, she said at this stage of life she’s “become part of the What If club!”
“Brain function fascinates me and learning new things has led to fun experiments,” she told me. “What will happen IF I try this? Or do it that way? I’ve learned to be grateful for mistakes, accidents and stupid decisions because they frequently become beginnings of new ideas. It may not work on this painting, but I’ll remember it for the next.” Like what, I asked her. Anything I, as a total novice, might try? She had an answer that sounded like fun.
“One thing is to understand that when you do things very slowly, the brain can get bored and your mind wanders. If you work really fast, the brain can’t keep up and there is no rational thought to what you produce. For instance, one day I had painted until almost 5 p.m. I was tired and frustrated. Nothing was going right. I decided to try the speed game thinking. I had nothing to lose. I took out a sheet of typing paper and a pencil, timed myself for 20 seconds and drew as fast as I could. It fascinated me. I then added detail, reproduced it on big sheet of watercolor paper and painted it. It took some time to actually identify what I had produced and it blew my mind. It was a thought I had as I watched the Trade Center Towers go down but, had no mental image of what I painted until it was finished. It was my emotional response — nothing I had seen anywhere. I have about twelve of them now from different moments in time. Try it!”
Such an unwavering willingness to risk and improvise grew out of a highly disciplined, yet unorthodox educational pursuit which led ultimately to her art career. She got a degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, then worked in psychiatry for a number of years, using just about every technique she knew that might be helpful to patients. Karyl has a wryly appealing way of explaining her evolution as an artist. “Because I had transferred into OT my sophomore year of college, I missed the ‘proper ways of painting on paper’ part of my education and thus did whatever worked. Which has become one of my favorite strategies to this day.”
I’m eager now to see Karyl’s finished new project. it may shed some light on how to figure out all this brain function stuff, by depicting some of the ins and outs of integrating new approaches to illness vs. healing. I think it might end up being an inspirational piece that offers a a sense of the marriage of science and spirit, mind and heart. Karyl carries a personal sense of life as a cheerfully beneficent mystery paired with a wonderfully hopeful curiosity, two qualities reflected in her art. She told me that in many of her Plexiglas paintings, she embeds a key, usually near the bottom of the frame area. Her explanation: “We are all prisoners of our own — and perhaps others’… fears, desires, beliefs…which may no longer be valid. The key is to unlock your door, take a deep breath and venture out, perhaps just a step at a time.”
If certain matters of mind and heart can be known to us only after we find the courage to venture into unknown — maybe a little shaky, maybe quaking in our boots even, but determined nevertheless, to meet the Muse — then Karyl Bennett’s art may well be a beacon on the road to wisdom’s edge. As positive, prescient and potent visual statements about the times we live in, the spirit of her work echoes novelist Graham Greene’s declaration, “When we are not sure, we are most alive.” Words of wisdom for the creative spirit in all of us.
Melanie Lee is an award-winning writer, editor, artist and author. Growing up in Texas, she read mostly biography and autobiography and dreamed of being a writer who could help inspire others to meet their muse by honoring beauty in everyday life. She holds degrees in languages and journalism and was a features editor and columnist, writing everything from lifestyle stories and business news to profiles of entrepreneurs, artists and inventors engaged in the creative pursuit of right livelihood. She lived for ten years in Northern New Mexico where she was creator and director of Sojourns Writing Workshops of Santa Fe.
At the second half of life she moved to Sedona with her husband Louis Michalski. She met her muse anew, took up painting, became a yoga teacher and avid hiker and wrote “A Year in Sedona~Meeting the Muse at Wisdom’s Edge“, available on Amazon.com or from the author. She can be contacted at
P.O. Box 1419 Sedona, AZ 86339 or email@example.com