Real Fantasies Of Family And Earth

``My Soul the World,'' paintings by Denita Benyshek in a joint show with photographer Corwin Fergus at Bell Gallery, 2207 First Ave. through March 31, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Lecture performance by Benyshek 7 p.m. Wednesday; film showing by Fergus 7 p.m. March 14. (443-9515)

by Karen Mathieson

Times staff reporter

Dreams were shared around the breakfast table when Denita Benyshek was a little girl. Her Kansas farm family, with its Czechoslovakian folk heritage, ``had its finger on the pulse of life,'' Benyshek recalls. In those days, the Seattle artist ``thought my grandmother was the center of the universe.''

Since the mid-1980s, Benyshek has been recapturing the experiences of her youth. In teaching the arts to kindergarten through high-school students in villages from the southwest coast of Alaska to the Arctic, Benyshek has entered a world where family traditions and the symbolism of dreams are as important as living close to the rhythms of the earth.

Benyshek's water-based paintings, assembled in collage on a fabric backing, reflect her experiences both early and recent. The bright colors, and such decorative elements as a knotted ``fringe'' across the bottom of a picture, are straight out of Czech tradition. So, too, is the fairy-tale mix of fantasy and realism.

Emblems of Eskimo, Aleut, Tlingit and other tribal cultures have also influenced Benyshek, especially through the carved ``stories'' of totems. In ``Angela at Fish Camp,'' Benyshek places totem poles on either side of her main image, a woman beside a swirling pool. The vertical element is defined by a mirror frame in ``Totem of Myself.'' Here, symbols of Benyshek's nature, including the startling head of a lioness, interlace with more abstract patternings that resemble the decorations of an illuminated manuscript.

Over the last several years, Benyshek has developed an unusual collaboration with photographer Corwin Fergus. Her paintings are layered and interwoven with his dreamlike multiple-exposure images. Several of their joint projects hang to the left near the entrance of the Bell Gallery. Save these for last. After Benyshek's intensely autobiographical paintings, and Corwin's solo work of uncanny, archetypal power, the combined work is an intriguing mesh of creative ideas and media.