The hope and dismay of Bennett Prize Finalist Kyla Zoe Rafert

The Ohio artist’s paintings will be included in a traveling exhibit alongside the other nine Bennett finalists beginning with an opening reception at the Muskegon Museum of Art in May 2023.
Detail of "Instinct" by Kyla Zoe Rafert
Detail of "Instinct" by Kyla Zoe RafertCourtesy the artist

In mid-November, Central Ohio artist Kyla Zoe Rafert received a text message from a phone number that she immediately recognized asking her to please call.  

The message came from Steven Alan Bennett and his wife, Dr. Melotti Schmidt, art collectors who in 2018 established the Bennett Prize, which awards $50,000 to a woman artist to create her own solo exhibit of figurative realist paintings. The competition takes place every two years, with the next winner announced in May 2023. And the Bennetts were contacting Rafert to let her know that she was among the 10 finalists for the prize this year.

“Honestly, I thought they might have a question about how my work was made. … It didn’t even occur to me that I might be a finalist,” said Rafert, whose work will appear in a traveling exhibit alongside the other nine artists vying for the prize. The tour kicks off next year with an opening reception at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Muskegon, Mich., where the winner will also be announced on May 18, 2023 – the eve of Rafert’s birthday. “It’s incredibly validating, but also, and I think any creative person can relate, I’m always second-guessing what I’m doing. … So, I went through about a day of being like, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ and then immediately fell into these fears: worrying about picking the right piece, worrying about my chances.”

These divergent emotions – hope and dismay – often exist side-by-side in Rafert’s gorgeous, intricately detailed canvases, each of which contains a complex narrative, parts of which might not reveal themselves to the artist until months or even years after a piece is completed.

While working on “Dreams of Thalassa” – one of three paintings Rafert plans to submit for final Bennett judging (the other two are “Instinct” and “Cockfight”; all three will appear in the 2023 traveling exhibit) – the artist said she had visions of a sea merchant’s wife maintaining the home during the months-long stretches when her husband traversed the ocean. It wasn’t until months later, after the painting had been completed, that she realized she was actually reckoning with her own life, and the reality that her husband’s work kept him on the road and away from the family for a majority of each week.

“He was working out of town Monday through Friday, and then I was home with a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old, and I realized I was [reckoning] with this sense of loneliness,” said Rafert, who is represented locally by Sarah Gormley Gallery. “I actually think in images a lot, so I’ll be staring at a painting and get this impulse. It really strikes like lightning, where I hit on the thing I know I’m putting in there, and it’s like, ‘Aha!’ But sometimes I don’t know why it has to be that thing. It just feels right. So, no, I often don’t know exactly what the paintings are about [in the moment], and I often learn more as I look back.”

Big picture, though, Rafert said she has seen a gradual thematic shift in her work, which has moved from explorations of the feminine experience and her relationship with perfectionism (a trait that reveals itself in the intricate patterns and fine detail work that have become hallmarks of her canvases) and toward reflections on motherhood.

“It’s more about the role of being a mom, and how there are so many expectations and roles and shoes to fill,” Rafert said.

"Instinct" by Kyla Zoe Rafert
"Instinct" by Kyla Zoe RafertCourtesy the artist

But even this only scratches the surface of paintings such as “Instinct,” a staggering, beautifully rendered work that depicts a mother flanked by her two children, modeled on Rafert's own kids. The trio stands on a bearskin rug, the floor scattered with broken watermelons. To the side are a pair of cats, one with a dead passenger pigeon clenched in its jaws. The work is surrealist, but also grounded in reality. “I was thinking the other day about how [the paintings] never break the laws of physics, and there’s never something floating around that shouldn’t be,” the artist said.

As Rafert worked on “Instinct,” she wrestled with myriad thoughts, including the concept of American exceptionalism, mass consumption, Westward expansion and “the idea that this whole country is founded on one culture over another.”

“Then, on a more personal level, I spent a lot of time agonizing over the idea of raising kids in this world and feeling conflicted about how they’re being brought up in this completely unsustainable society,” Rafert said. “So, in that painting, there are all of these layers of thought that had a cohesive string between them. … I was thinking about the destructive force of American culture, and how it’s strange to be an American and also bringing up Americans at the same time, and to be aware of all of that.”

Rafert allowed that her work has leaned into darker themes amid the ongoing pandemic – “Somebody called it sharp object vibes,” she said, and laughed – but more than that she believed there was a greater reckoning taking place in the paintings as she tried to find a way forward amid the gathering outside storm clouds.

“It’s almost trying to figure out ... what does it mean that I can’t fix the world? And what can I do?” Rafert said. “And living out here in the country and experiencing this incredibly precious time in my life with my two young children ... I think the best thing I can do is slow down, detach as much as possible and enjoy what’s in front of me, away from the chaos and misdirection of the outside world.”

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