Studio Visit: Disturbed Beauty

A Phoenix artist who dreams up dark works like The Nightmare

It's too easy to label Rachel Bess dark.

After all, the 24-year-old artist harbors an obvious obsession with mortality. Her artwork is more still-dead than still-life, often incorporating fragments of animal skeletons or human skulls, and the bleak landscapes she paints, with titles like The Nightmare, have earned the moniker of macabre more than once.

And then there are her own nightmares, which haunt her constantly, her jet-black hair -- a must for any self-proclaimed goth kid -- and her extensive collection of jarred animal carcasses, displayed casually in a back room of her central Phoenix home.

Collecting Table
Collecting Table
Rachel Bess lines the walls of her Phoenix home/studio 
with jars of dead animals, some former pets.
Jeff Newton
Rachel Bess lines the walls of her Phoenix home/studio with jars of dead animals, some former pets.

Indeed, it's all too easy to assume that Bess endured a childhood riddled with pain, or a traumatizing teen life, but Bess is determined to make our conclusions about her -- and her artwork -- harder to reach.

On the exterior, there's nothing about Bess' two-bedroom home that screams "house of the dead." Desert life flourishes in front, grapevines cling to the side of the house, and petite cantaloupes sprout in oversize flowerpots in back. Bess' Phoenix neighborhood, filled with older homes, is a quiet stop between the gritty section of Indian School Road, near the VA Hospital, and Camelback Road, five minutes from the glitzy Biltmore shopping center.

Bess greets visitors with a bashful hello and a slight smile, only to be upstaged by an attention-hungry Bengal cat named Lasa [sic] Velocity (after the Tibetan city Lhasa and the cat's breakneck pace). The brawny feline writhes around on an antique chair in the front room, one of only a few pieces of furniture in the house.

Bess, who teaches drawing at the New School for the Arts in Tempe, is truly a minimalist -- her unadorned walls and natural complexion say so. But the clutter of cleaning supplies, painting materials and random junk on the floor indicate her recent move from the Citywide Studios complex on 15th Avenue, an artsy alcove of downtown Phoenix.

Now, she has her own studio in her own backyard -- a garage turned painter's digs. Just like the rest of her house, the studio is still in the works, so there's little to gawk at. A stack of ornate, antique frames, which Bess uses for her smaller pieces, sits in the corner of the stuffy studio, and only one large painting, the aforementioned The Nightmare, is propped against the wall.

Like many of her paintings, The Nightmare is surreal at its simplest. With murky jade waters as its backdrop, the painting depicts two masked women, one crouched feebly on the seabed, her arms clutching her naked body, the other more clownlike in appearance gazing down at her. Fish skeletons float aimlessly by the fray, completing a scene that's all too familiar to the nightmare-prone artist. Bess adds that she also suffers from night terrors, a phenomenon that violently wakes its victims from slumber.

The lone painting hanging in her bedroom, Fishing in Darkness, is similarly dismal. The piece, which covers an entire wall, shows a woman fishing with an antique egg beater (in darkness, of course), her head draped in a squid carcass, as if it were the fashion.

Bess will eventually whip up her baroque-like oil paintings in her studio, but it's inside the house where she milks her inspiration.

Stemming from a lifelong fascination with natural history and forensics, Bess fills an otherwise empty room with animal remains. Dozens of jars, once filled with sweet Smuckers jam or spicy Tostitos salsa, now line the walls, stuffed with fermented snakes, eels, turtles and mice. A few were her pets at one time, but most she inherited from willing pet store owners.

"I get irritated with people out here -- how when something dies they just throw it away," says Bess, brushing aside a black hair ribbon from her eyes. "I like to keep them around."

And she has since she was a child growing up in Tempe, hoarding dead birds or lizards in her closet. She offers no real impetus for the hobby -- only that it runs in the family. Unbeknownst to Bess until she started college, her microbiologist mother once kept her own closet-dwelling collection of dead reptiles and rodents.

She also admits that keeping her lifeless friends around doesn't hurt when it's time to paint what she calls her "narrative illustrations," holding steadfast to her motto, "In Science I Trust."

"All my paintings have some origin in science," says Bess, who often paints herself into her work as well. "I have the same emotions and passion for the sciences and the natural world as a lot of people have about religion and Jesus."

Bess' recent installation, which ran at the Herberger Gallery in Phoenix from April through June, reflected this religion. Pieces like Half-Reanimated Hummingbird, which borders a delicate Hummingbird skeleton in a garish golden frame, Medusa, Medusae and Venus Got Lost all include some element of the natural world, either living or dead.

Half-Reanimated Hummingbird was the only piece from the Herberger collection to sell (pieces ranged from $275 to $1,800), but while Bess is still a novice when it comes to making art for profit, her palette has remained full. Since graduating from ASU in 2001, Bess has shown her work at Modified, monOrchid and Studio LoDo, all in Phoenix, and ASU's Step Gallery. The Herberger pieces will relocate to the Dollhaus Art Gallery in Williamsburg, New York, this December, and she's planning a show for January at the Casa Grande Museum.

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