The Bennett Prize Returns to the Customs House Museum

By Meghan E. Gattignolo 

As a strong supporter of women artists, the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center has hosted the Bennett Prize exhibit since its first award in 2019. Women artists sometimes find it difficult to make an impression on the art world. Especially in the world of figurative art, men are often given more attention and opportunities. The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realist Painters gives new women artists a platform, and throws a focus on contemporary figurative realism. The Bennett Prize is prestigious, awarding one artist a prize of $50,000 every two years.  

Highlighting Women Artists 

In a world where male artists are routinely paid more for their art, the Bennett Prize is here to help. Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt have been collecting art for over a decade. Their personal collection represents a wide range of figurative realist paintings by women artists. The artists included in their collection extend from the most recent in cutting-edge figurative realism all the way back to the 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. 

During their collecting adventures, the couple noticed inequities with how men and women are represented in the art industry. This led Bennett and Schmidt to embark on a new quest: to do what they can to push women figurative artists into the spotlight. The Bennett Prize – the largest monetary prize bestowed exclusively to women artists – was created in 2018 and first awarded in 2019. To date, three women have won the prize, while many others have been recognized and gained new visibility during the selection process. 

Early Afternoon
Mayumi Nakao

Before Dawn
Ruth Dealy

Isuwiq’s Prayer
Linda Infante Lyons

Bringing Figurative Realism Back from the Brink 

Figurative realism refers to art that captures the human form, particularly works that are stunningly life-like. When it’s created by a talented artist, figurative realism can bring forth new perspectives and comment on human nature.  

Figurative realism was once the epitome of art forms, celebrated for its detail and need for technical skill – think Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring – but the style has popped in and out of fashion over the centuries. The 20th century saw a stark decline in works of figurative realism, in favor of more abstract art forms. Only recently has it begun to enjoy a resurgence in popularity. Steven Alan Bennett and Dr. Elaine Melotti Schmidt are a part of this movement with the institution of their award. They both place a high value on figurative realism. According to them, this particular style does justice to the female experience by “celebrating women in all their complexity, power, and vulnerability.”  

The Call
Ayanna Ross

Golf Lesson
Ayanna Ross

Introducing New Artists to the World 

Since it only awards every two years, the pool of Bennett Prize winners is a very exclusive club. The inaugural winner, Aneka Ingold, won the prize in 2019.  Her paintings that include mixed media elements are graphically stunning. Ingold’s work deals directly with the female experience, particularly with personal fears associated with life’s changing roles. In 2021, Ayana Ross won the award. Her work handles the Black experience through the lens of generational changes and celebrates the beauty in everyday moments.  

Shiqing Deng is the latest winner. Her work has been referred to as “strange and compelling,” mixing realism with the surreal. You can view Deng’s work as part of the exhibit Rising Voices 3: The Bennett Prize for Women Figurative Realists Painters. You can also check out work by all the finalists of the 2023 Bennett Prize, in the Kimbrough Gallery of the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center through April 21, 2024! 

Featured Image: ASMR by Shiqing Deng


Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters. 

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