Julie Reneé Benda
MFA in Visual Studies
Environmental Artist and Designer, Interdisciplinary

In a couple sentences, describe what you do for work and how you feel about it.

I currently contract with artists and nonprofits that enable me to work with public space, landscape, habitat, and design.  My job looks different everyday. Sometimes I am digging in the dirt or drawing maps, other times I am designing a field guide. Nonetheless, I love that what I do blends the disciplines of art and science, of imagination and action. 

How did you get your job? 

My time at MCAD introduced me to a network of professionals in the field of public art and environmentally engaged work. While there, I reached out to artist Amanda Lovelee, an alumni of MCAD whose work with Urban Flower Field I greatly respected. This relationship, as well as others, guided me to work on similar projects, as well as for local organizations like Frogtown Farm, where I spent last year as a field coordinator.

What inspires you/your work?

The animacy of plants, human relationships with landscape, and bold women in the arts.

Has your work evolved since leaving MCAD? How so?

Since leaving MCAD, I have had time for all the new ideas and information to gestate and mature. Although my practice is constantly evolving, I believe my work has gotten more specific, personal, and I’ve gotten better at defining where my interests lie. Each project has allowed me to refine my voice and peel away what aspects aren’t necessary. 

Where did you get your undergraduate degree? What was that experience like?

I received my undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. It took me seven years to finally finish my bachelor of arts, as I took multiple semesters off after abandoning a major in biology. It was a difficult experience to realize that the career path for what I thought was going to be working with people and plants was likely going to be sitting alone indoors, behind a microscope, basking in the smell of formaldehyde. After some time off I had enough perspective to know that I wanted to work with my hands, and although I didn't know if I would ever get to bring my interests together, I returned to Stevens Point to complete a degree in studio art and finish a minor in plant biology.  

Why did you choose MCAD for your MFA? Do you feel it was the right choice?

One of the reasons I chose MCAD was because of its location. Minnesota is a state that supports its artists, has a robust art community, and has a broad range of opportunities. While my development as an artist may have been better suited to a three-year program, (it takes me a relatively long time to integrate knowledge and understanding) MCAD's MFA program was unique in its network of artists and professionals. I feel lucky to have met so many influential people through the program.

In what way did MCAD instructors and/or your mentor help you become a better artist/designer?

The pressure to do the work you say you want to do—even though you will probably start off being really bad at it—is an immensely helpful, although uncomfortable, expectation to be held to. Mentors and instructors that demanded accountability for the work also made it possible for me as an artist to move through my own doubt and trust in the work I felt compelled to make.  In any creative field, learning that there is simply no authority out there who is going to tell you what to do and how to do it is tremendously helpful for overcoming uncertainty.

What kind of work did you make in the program? What do you make now?

In the program, I worked on expanding my printmaking practice to include book, installation, and social interaction. Now, I continue to make prints, narrative-driven installations, as well as public art in the form of sculpture, education, and engagement. 

How do you incorporate sustainable thinking into your current practice?

I am now, more than ever, thinking about the processes, fuels, and energy that go into the production of the materials I choose as well as how those materials may get reused in the future. After several years working with other artists on public pieces, I also understand that it is imperative for us as artists start thinking about our material world not just fifteen years down the road, but fifty, one hundred, or two hundred years. Asking questions like: How does this impact the environment a century from now? How can the materials be reused if it only lasts fifty years? How can other organizations utilize what we are creating to amplify work that is already being done?

What did you enjoy most about your MFA experience?

The people, the exposure to art and artists that I would not have been introduced to otherwise, and of course, the library!

What advice do you have for current MCAD students?

With all the emphasis on immediacy, urgency, and rigor, don't forget that you are in this art/work/life for the long game. Take your time, give others time, have patience and trust yourself. 

Current obsession?

Podcasts, podcasts, podcasts! I absolutely love asking others what their favorites are. 

What podcast is currently in your queue?

Weapon of Choice.

In your own words, what is a self-portrait?

Any creation that requires thought and reflection of one's own existence in the world.