Her dad, who refurbished guitars, taught her to work with tools. Her mom worked another angle, instilling a passion for wildlife. Every birthday, Mel Bennett asked for a new pet: “My mom always allowed me to have them.” Her dad wasn’t so eager — “but he always ended up loving them too,” she says.
Unlike many makers who discover Craft City as adults, Bennett grew up surrounded by Asheville arts culture and the gallery scene. “I yearned to be a part of it,” she says. At first she doubted herself. Now, though, being a Western North Carolina native, “I know where my work will likely prosper better and fit in,” she points out.
After high school, Bennett attended Savannah College of Art and Design, majoring in illustration and Communication Arts. During her six years there, she explored various mediums — but the sparks really flew when she tried metal. “I ended up minoring in sculpture because my illustrations were so three-dimensional and collage-like,” Bennett says. “I felt like sculpture would give me different opportunities in 3D-type work. After I graduated, I moved back to Asheville and got a job with an artisanal metal worker. Now, I describe my work as almost drawing with metal.”
Two years ago, 29-year-old Bennett ventured out on her own. She and her wife purchased a beautiful hobby farm in Canton to get away from the crowds, get closer to nature, and rehabilitate animals: three alpacas, a horse, two goats, three ducks, a flock of chickens, and four dogs. If that’s not a full-enough house, Bennett also has a metal menagerie: the one she makes. “It’s always been animals for me,” she says. “They’re the truest and most honest form of life.”
She scouts her material from scrapyards. “Sometimes I see a piece that I think looks like the base shape of a certain animal,” she explains. “I find interesting and diverse pieces, planar pieces, textured pieces that I can manipulate.”
Her portfolio includes birds, reptiles, mammals, and insects. First, she researches a creature’s anatomy (if she’s not sure of it already) and sketches her subject before hunting for scrap. She says friends used to make fun of her for scooping up metal from the side of the road. “I didn’t care — I was cleaning up the environment. It’s nice to be able to use trash to make something that people like.”
She adds: “I don’t see myself as a saint or anything … the pieces I find are better than anything that you can buy manufactured.” The metal stays unaltered until it’s on her table; then its cut with a plasma cutter, welded, and sanded to smoothness.
The barn on Bennett’s property was her metalsmith shop until recently, when she moved into a newly constructed tiny-home studio space next to her house (also custom built with the help of friends). “We bought the house from a couple who truly cherished the farm,” says Bennett. “They wanted to be sure they had found its next ‘rightful owners,’ ones that would wake up every day [appreciating] everything that makes up life at the farm.”
Especially animal life. “I’ve encountered the beauty of their lives, and, on the other side, I’ve also encountered death,” the artist notes. “I bring that juxtaposition into my work: the discarded metal is dead and forgotten, repurposed into something with life.”
Mel Bennett, Canton. Bennett shows her work at Grovewood Gallery (111 Grovewood Road, Asheville, grovewood.com), The Haywood County Arts Council Gallery (86 North Main St., Waynesville, haywoodarts.org), and at Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville (25 Haywood St., woolworthwalk.com). She’ll exhibit at the Village Art & Craft Fair in Biltmore Village Saturday, Aug. 3 and Sunday, Aug. 4 (newmorninggallerync/village-arts-and-crafts-fair). For more information, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org, see mel-bennett.com, or find her on Instagram: @melbennett.sculpture.