Sudden, life-threatening illness in a child is among life’s most terrifying circumstances. Samantha Bennett, who was just nine months old when she contracted bacterial meningitis, considers herself fortunate that her life was spared from the disease that left her missing several fingers and toes and half her right foot and scarred over much of her body.
“It sounds horrible, but the important thing to me is that I survived,” says Bennett. “I have been through craziness in my life. I have had over 25 surgeries, but I am still standing.”
Despite the harrowing nature of the story she tells, her expression is calm and smiling. Her eyes, the color of freshly bottled honey, gloss as her mind drifts back in time through her struggles. On her arm is an intricate tattoo – just one of many ways she has chosen to transform the scars of her past into landscapes of power and beauty.
“My scars are my story and I am proud of them,” asserts Bennett.
Seated in her studio, which is packed with canvases in varying states of completion alongside a jumble of oil crayons and paint bottles, she recalls the origin of her artistic leanings. “I remember being really, really little and not even knowing how to write my name yet, but I was drawing,” says Bennett, who first began creating art as a form of therapy while recovering in her hospital room. “It was comforting to me.”
As an adult, Bennett experienced another profound tragedy with the loss of her newborn son.
“I was so angry. It just wasn’t fair,” she said. “I was asking myself everyday, how much can one person handle? But then, in retrospect, I realized that these things were happened to me because I could handle them.”
It is this determination to triumph over the obstacles and limitations life has placed before her that inspires the CCAD grad’s artwork and creates purpose in her life.
“Since then I have done hundreds of commemorative portraits,” she said. The Butterfly Portrait series, many of which Bennett has painted free of charge for families in need, were meant to capture the beauty and innocence of lost children, many of whom were victims of bacterial meningitis.
“Art is a great healer,” she says. “It has healed many losses in my life – losses of fingers, losses of skin, loss of one of my children. I just felt like I just needed to do something for everyone.”
Bennett, who has received national media attention for her creations, also works with the National Meningitis Association to help raise awareness about bacterial meningitis, one of the leading infectious killers in children under five. “ I want to empower people to understand the disease and how vaccination can protect their children,” she explains.
Although she continues to struggle with the aftermath of her illness, Bennett has no regrets about the experiences that have shaped her life and work.
“Our scars, whether internal or external,” she reflects, “make us who we are.”
Bennett’s Cities and Neighborhoods collection will be on display at the Hayley Gallery, 270 E Main St. through the month of April.