Interview with Barbara Benish from Janeil Engelstad’s project “Environmental Art in Central And Eastern Europe” for ArtMargins
In 2004, Barbara Benish founded the NGO Art Dialogue, which, among other things supports programs and a farm at ArtMill, a renovated flourmill and granary from the 17th century located in the forested countryside bordering Šumava National Park (one of the largest remaining greenbelts in Europe). Positioned on a beautiful lake, ArtMill has become an international destination for artists, scientists, environmentalists, writers and students of all ages to study, collaborate and create. The rural property consists of living quarters, renovated studio structures, barns, outdoor workspaces and organic gardens. At ArtMill, Benish has created a space and program that fosters creativity in the individual and to that end, sustainability of the planet.
This text is adapted from conversations between Barbara Benish and Janeil Engelstad (2012 – 2014)
Art Dialogue officially started in 2004, but the idea actually began in an exhibition that I co-organized in 1989 which was called, Dialogue: Prague /Los Angeles. It was the first time that Czech, Slovak and American art had been exchanged in an international exhibition in 50 years. This was right before the Velvet Revolution, when communism was starting to break apart and open up. We brought 12 American artists to Prague, exhibiting their work under heavy police surveillance. The atmosphere was politically hot. The StB was knocking at the door during symposiums, trying to close us down and I was being followed by one of their undercover agents.
People in the art community did not believe that there could be a true exchange, where Czech and Slovak artists could travel to the States for the Los Angeles piece of the exhibition. None of the participating artists had passports and as much of the work that they were producing deemed subversive to the state, exhibiting it was illegal. But then the Berlin Wall came down and everything rapidly changed. The exchange became politically possible and we were able to raise the money to bring the Czechoslovak artists to Los Angeles. That project changed my life. I worked on it for nearly five years and through the process I experienced first hand how art can create social change. (Visual artists, poets and writers were at the forefront of the Velvet Revolution and transition from communism to democracy in Czechoslovakia.)
In 2004 I organized the 15th anniversary of the Dialogue show and that is when I founded Art Dialogue. By then my family was living at ArtMill and people were visiting us from all over the world. I realized that there was a unique opportunity to offer space and new ways for sharing information and ideas. I have a friend, Ivan Kafka, who says that you can never teach art but you can put together an atmosphere where creativity can be developed. Helping people to get into a space where they can actually make something takes away the focus on the object, and it becomes about the process. That is what we began to do at ArtMill.
Our first program was a summer camp. I had small children, friends were bringing their kids to the Mill and setting up camp was a natural first step. We taught the kids about the environment, history and other subjects via art projects. There was a tradition in the former Czechoslovakia during communism where people would get together and go camping in the wilderness. They would teach their children music, art and about nature. ArtMill’s camp was inspired by this history. Eventually, I decided to formalize the camp into an official, international summer camp. Organically our programs expanded to include art and environmental workshops and programs for high school and college students. Called Bohemian Workshops, each summer we bring professional Czech artists to the Mill to teach arts and ecology to small groups of students, outdoors in the open air, where they learn so differently than inside of a classroom.
In 2010, after I began working with the idea that creativity was no longer sustainable, we expanded the name of ArtMill to ArtMill Center for Sustainable Creativity. Creativity used to be an educational value that was a part of schooling systems, but that’s no longer the case and I wanted to develop new, creative ways to teach knowledge and information about ecology and environmental issues. This renaming also tied into a new United Nations program that Art Dialogue was invited to participate in, the Safe Planet Campaign for the Responsibility of Hazardous Chemicals and Wastes, under the auspices of the Stockholm, Basel and Rotterdam Conventions.
With the Safe Planet campaign we are working to demonstrate and visualize how toxins and chemical waste are affecting our bodies, as well as the planet. Our work includes showing people what is happening to our bodies with the Chemical Body Burden. There are at least 82 toxic chemicals that we all carry in our body. With Safe Planet we are working to understand where the chemicals come from, how they get in our bodies and how can we stop this from happening. We also work on persistent organic pollutants(POPs), plastic pollution, mercury pollution and e-waste. There is a considerable amount of scientific information about these issues and our task is to help the general public have access to it and then help them to understand how chemicals and hazardous waste are impacting our lives. Scientists rarely have the resources for outreach and often they don't have access to the public. Art is a way to deliver the science of these topics in a way that people understand.
In addition to illustrating science we are researching how creativity can create change. To that end, Art Dialogue is working with several United Nation initiatives on the formation of new Sustainable Development Goals that reflect the importance of arts and culture in this work. Our activities in UN conferences and other events is allowing us to articulate our experience over the years of farming and teaching at ArtMill into a model that can bring creative, local economies into a sustainable future. Working through art we are able get people excited about these ideas, light them on fire and then together create positive change. This is what I saw happening in the streets of Prague in 1989 and that energy continues to inspire me today.