Their Art Continued ...

How the work of three women artists took a turn during the pandemic

| 13 Apr 2021 | 03:06

They are three women who, in many ways, could not be more different. Yet, they have all managed to continue — and even elevate — their artistic work over the past year: work that can now be seen in the city or via their blooming websites.

Sallie Benton has been painting for many years. She is an Upper East Sider, and to many, known as the wife of Oscar-winning director (“Kramer vs Kramer”) Robert Benton. But she has been painting in her apartment studio consistently, and a current exhibit, “Georgica: Small Works,” recently opened at the First Street Gallery in Chelsea. Known for her evocative portraits, Benton says her work took a turn during the pandemic.

“Forced, during our lockdown, to abandon my lifelong love of painting people, I began dreaming of the happiest time of my life,” she says, “spent on a pond near the ocean. I thought of the single scull I learned to row, the trees I’d planted, and the soft summer breezes full of salty, humid air.” So she pivoted to landscapes. “My motif became one particular tree, bent over by hurricanes on a road winding home from the beach.” The works are all acrylic on aluminum and quietly, but powerfully, pull you back to your own memories of happier and more hopeful days.

Benton’s grandfather was a painter who studied in Paris, and gave her a pencil and paper at the age of three. A long journey began, including motherhood, and an MFA from Yale — but her love of creating life on paper has never waned.

“It’s Been Uphill”

While Benton’s buoyant spirit endures, she lives with, and is understandably concerned for, her 88-year old husband. Something well understood by mass-media artist Giovanna Di Lieto, who is also continuing to work, while raising a daughter alone, and having a mother and father to worry about. “It’s been uphill as a single mom, and now I’m caretaker to both of my parents,” she says. “My mother had a stroke in October; my dad is 94, I’ve been managing everything for them. They are on the mend now, but it’s been rough. Rachael is strong and independent, but still a teen at this time — I miss the child who was my best buddy.”

And yet, you can feel the inner strength of this woman, (who is also a cancer survivor) if you visit her Madonna Room installation, just put up at Chinatown Soup on Orchard Street. “My Warrior Madonna tiles were something I could do at the kitchen table when I was unable to be in my usual studio,” she says. “A metaphor for single motherhood, one is holding swords close to her breast. You have to be hyper vigilant but yet soft and nurturing.” The various goddesses come from different continents. (Speaking of which, she was born in America, but her grandparents were from Capri, which she visits regularly in normal times)

Di Lieto used recycled materials – “collecting old jewelry from everyone” — and with pliers, shells, twigs, and thorns beads, has created real beauty out of something broken. If that’s not a metaphor for this past year ...

“A Test of My Philosophy”

And then there is Joanne McFarland, a Black artist and poet, and a divorced mother to a pair of creative millennials. “In some ways the past year has been a test of my philosophy,” she says. “I’ve always emphasized living an almost ascetic life in order to be creative. During stressful periods, like this one, I go into hyperdrive and become even more productive, though my moods fluctuate wildly. Traveling back and forth on the subway to my mom’s (now 91) place on the UES sometimes felt a bit dangerous. But the enduring sense of crisis on several fronts has allowed me to really experiment.”

McFarland is part of a group of artists and curators, Assembly Required, focused on projects for the fall, when they hope NYC and the art world will be more open to on-site visits. She will also be curating exhibitions at The Painting Center in Chelsea for February 2022. In the meantime, her website ( is worth visiting.

Three women, of different decades and lifestyles, but driven by a need to give us beautiful words and images. We have never needed them more.

“The enduring sense of crisis on several fronts has allowed me to really experiment.” Joanne McFarland