Loydean Thomas, Country Lifestyle, August 2007
The work of Johnson City artist Benini has earned the respect and admiration of national and international curators, collectors and gallery owners. He has had 160 one-man shows. But perhaps his most impressive creation is himself.
“I have made myself the way I wanted to. I am an athlete of the mind. As the body slowly fades, some minds keep growing. It’s a matter of choices in life, what you choose to become,” he says.
Benini was born into the chaos of war-torn Imola, Italy, in 1941. He and his mother survived the World War II bombing that destroyed their home as the Allies broke through the German lines. When the bombing ended, the only part of their house left standing was the stairway under which they took refuge. The scene was recorded in Benini’s memory in black and white, but he doesn’t recall it as being so terrible. “It made me realize early on, that nothing is safe or permanent. A lot has been made of childhood dramas, but if it’s your lot in life, you become resigned to misfortunes.”
Benini says he might have chosen any number of professions. “I could have been an actor. I played in a few movies in my teens. Perhaps I became a painter because of the lack of color in my early life. Color has been a great ally for me.”
Benini left home at the age of 15. “I didn’t fit there,” he explains. He depended for his livelihood on his talents as an artist, which became evident at the age of 7, when he won a contest with a watercolor rendering of Ferrara’s Estense castle. He traveled from village to village, and from country to country, setting up his easel in the piazza, painting churches and landscapes and selling them for whatever a buyer wanted to pay him.
“It was usually enough for pasta, wine and humble lodgings. When it was cold, I painted portraits inside a bar.” For the first, and possibly the only time in his career, Benini happily compromised his art in the interest of commerce. “I learned that if I painted the eyes larger and the nose smaller, clients would pay more,” he recalls with amusement.
The circumstances of his early life gave Benini the opportunity for a self-directed education that far exceeded anything he could have gleaned from formal schooling. He spent his winters in large cities where the jobs were menial—washing dishes or busing tables—but the libraries and museums were edifying. Since the age of 9, when his father took him to a speed-reading class in Bologna, Benini has read a book a day. “To this day I keep the habit. I read mostly art-related biographies and the work of contemporary visionaries and philosophers, and I read science and trade journals—rarely fiction. On a practical level, when I want to explore a thought, I have a reference library that will take me all the way back to 50,000 years ago, in detail,” he says.
“I refuse to come close to a computer. It would sap my time into nothingness.” His wife Lorraine, who is his business manager, takes care of the computer chores. “In a computer the same topic would be so many bytes by somebody that predigested it, and that would be it, wheras I can travel with my mind where no machine can ever go.”
Benini was brought up in organized religion, “but by the age of 12, I had outgrown it.” He expanded from Catholicism to explore the mysteries of other belief systems. He remembers having once stood in a 16th-century church before a painting whose canvas was darkened with age. “The dark areas were the most intriguing to me,” he says.
After traveling about Europe, he spent three years in the Alpine Ski Patrol. Then, in 1965, he took a job aboard an Italian cruise ship, sailing to Central America and the Caribbean. “I went to sea and discovered America,” he says. He impulsively jumped ship and settled in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, where he embraced the life of the sought-after artist he was rapidly becoming. He began his series of one-man exhibitions in Europe, Canada, New York and other East Coast cities, exhibiting in any gallery that would give him a one-man show.
“In 1974 I woke up rigged by dealers and auctioneers. I was a prisoner of the system. If I had wanted to do that, I’d have made shoes, not art. Art is a calling. It’s the highest calling I know of,” he says. He no longer exhibits in commercial galleries. All of his exhibitions are at universities, museums and other public institutions. “I don’t do commissions, and I have no agents or dealers to tell me what to do. I am one of a kind: I am. Without hustling and hype,” he added.
In 1977, Benini packed up his paintings and his 7,000 or so books along with his personal belongings, stashed them in leased DC-9 aircraft and immigrated to West Palm Beach, Fla. “The good life gets boring,” he explains.
A year later, Lorraine Link, who was working on a master’s degree in journalism and communications at the University of Florida and writing for the Gainesville Sun, came to interview him about an upcoming exhibition. His life would never again be the same.
“My friends told me I’d be sorry if I went out with Benini,” says Lorraine Benini, who met the artist when women’s rights was a hot topic on college campuses. “They thought he was a chauvinist. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He is the kindest, least biased person in the world. Every man, woman and child is the same in his eyes.”
Lorraine adds that Benini is the most engaging person she knows. “I can’t imagine that I could ever have stayed with anyone except Benini for 30 years. He is wise, and he is never boring.”
Benini expresses the same commitment to his wife. “I’ve known a lot of women. But my fortune was to find a soul mate. I have dedicated my life to be with Lorraine.”
Benini’s patrons have stayed with him throughout his evolution as an artist. “When I was young, I was a painter, not an artist,” he says. During the early 1960s, he adopted a style meant to shock. “I painted a lot of ugly things. I burned a lot of them later.”
In the 70s, Benini rendered nudes and island life in delicate colors and hard-edge technique. He also began developing his layered acrylic technique by painting what came to be known in the art world as “Superroses,” and he continued for 20 years. “I was told, ‘If you do flowers they won’t take you seriously.’ I painted three roses on a 12 foot-by-36 foot vertical canvas, and they had to take me seriously,” he says.
Benini currently is working of series titled Face of God and Courting Kaos. “I’m now doing things that haven’t been done before.”
Benini has crisscrossed the United States, primarily in connection with his exhibitions. He says he has looked at every state except North Dakota, and he has drawn something from the soil of each state in which he has stopped over for a time. “From the swamps of Florida, I took some understanding of life at the molecular level,” he says. Then, it was time to move on.
Arkansas beckoned. “It was very similar to the spa cities in Northern Italy,” Benini says. He and Lorraine settled in Hot Springs National Park for 12 years. They become the nucleus of a vibrant arts community which spawned events ranging from historic architecture tours to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival directed by Lorraine. Eventually, Benini found Arkansas too restricting.
‘It’s not good for an artist to become too comfortable,” he explains. “Arkansas is beautiful, but you know, it’s all trees. You can’t see anything on account of the trees, which is very nice for the fall, but for the rest of the year there was limited vision.”
Benini already knew Texas from his exhibits in Longview, Marshall and Dallas when he and Lorraine came to San Antonio eight years ago to claim a vacation trip bought at an arts fund-raiser. They saw the Texas Hill Country, and it was love at first sight. They stopped into a real estate office in Blanco and bought a 140-acre ranch on a Mediterranean-like landscape seven miles west of Johnson City. As it turned out, the property atop Rattlesnake Mountain once was President Lyndon Johnson’s hunting retreat. “It’s the first place he bought after he became president,” Benini says.
“Texas is the only place in America where no limits are recognized,” Benini says. At nightfall, he and Lorraine sit on their porch, at 1800 feet overlooking the valley below, and they gaze at the stars. “The stars shine at a level in Texas not seen in Europe because of the pollution. It translates into a sense of infinity. It has brought abut a sense of responsibility to the galaxy. We are a speck of dust in the universe,” Benini says.
Benini and Lorraine have transformed the ranch into the Benini Foundation Galleries and Sculpture Ranch, which includes their residence and a guest house. “The foundation is not a tax dodge,” Benini says. “ It is based on the European concept of establishing a study center focused on the lifetime work of one artist.”
A 14,000-square-foot Studios Building contains offices, a showroom where Benini’s paintings are displayed, a fine-arts library and the studio, where Benini works, only at night, to create paintings that have a three-dimensional impact lent by a technique originated by Benini. The canvases are stretched over flat aluminum cut into geometric and organic shapes hung inches from the wall. As many as 20 coats of acrylic paint, each one applied by brush, lend glowing life and a feeling of dimension to the singular works that have become Benini’s signature.
Sited about the ranch are 70 large-scale works of national and international sculptors. “We are not dealers,” Lorraine Benini stresses. “The works are for sale, but we don’t charge a commission. Everything here is paid for by the sale of Benini’s paintings. This is his way of giving something back to the world of art.”
The Beninis host a series of Arts Encounters cultural programs highlighting artists and other creative professionals. “They’re educational, but not painful,” Benini says. There is no charge. Check the website, www.Benini.com for more information.
The Sculpture Ranch and galleries are open ten to six, with the suggestion you call ahead. There is no charge and no donations are accepted. Contact Lorraine Benini, (830) 868-5244; Lorraine@Benini.com.
Loydean Thomas is a freelance contributor for Country Lifestyle.