The LBJ legacy takes a different turn as his former hunting ranch on Rattlesnake Mountain is transformed into a world-class sculpture ranch.
It’s a long, long way from the small Italian town of Imola (“thirty miles from the birthplace of Pavarotti,” Benini tells me) to Rattlesnake Mountain, seven miles west of Johnson City.
It’s a journey that took about 45 years, through 20 different countries, for the world-renowned artist, Benini; but he sees quite a bit in common between his unlikely destination and his boyhood home.
“It reminded me of the hills of northern Italy,” Benini says. “We were driving through Blanco County, falling in love with the scenery, when we decided to stop at a realtor’s office. A sign on the door said, ‘Closed for Lunch.’ I said to Lorraine, ‘These people know how to live!” (Benini’s wife, Lorraine, is a writer who met and fell in love with the artist when she was sent to interview him for a Florida newspaper nearly thirty years ago. She now works with him as his agent and business manager.)
Their move from Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the Beninis had helped build a thriving arts community, was almost that abrupt. “I told the realtor, ‘I want a house. I want a hill.’ He said, ‘I’ve got it.’
It wasn’t just your average house, or your average hill. Rattlesnake Mountain is the highest point along the beautiful Pedernales River valley, and commands a view that stretches (on a clear day) from Austin on the east to the hills beyond Fredericksburg on the west. The luxuriously rustic, Texas-style home had been built for Lyndon B. Johnson, who used the ranch (now called Le Stelle) for hunting while he served his term as president. And there’s more: the varied terrain offers intimate settings among the trees, or open spaces for groupings of sculptures. The rugged hillsides become part of the artist’s canvas, as God’s handiwork complements that of several noted sculptors.
A 14,000 square-foot Quonset hut that formerly housed President Johnson’s farm machines has been re-built to serve as headquarters for the Benini Foundation, with a fine arts library, offices and a beautiful gallery to exhibit art works by Benini and others. One interesting memento at the gallery (from Benini’s Hot Springs days) is a chandelier from Bill Clinton’s boyhood home; it was a gift from Clinton’s mother, Virginia Kelley.
The Beninis have even discovered a place to satisfy their craving for fine BBQ: Ronnie’s BBQ in Johnson City has become a home away from home, and the Beninis often entertain guests in a back room there.
Benini tells me that he’s been earning a living by painting for almost 50 years. He left home at age 14 and painted landscapes and churches to pay his way; his first one-man show was in 1961 in Milan. In 1968, he began showing in New York, in Canada and across Europe. He lived in 18 countries before settling in the Bahamas in 1972; he moved to Florida, and became an American citizen, in 1986.
Benini says that he’s been fortunate to have patrons follow him through several stages of development as an artist. “When I was young, I was a painter; I was not an artist,” he says. “Art is a tool to elevate our consciousness. An artist has to push the envelope into bigger and greater things.”
During the sixties, Benini went through a period where he wanted his work to shock viewers. “I painted a lot of ugly things. I burned a lot of them later.” It wasn’t a total waste. The Nixon administration used one of his “ugly” paintings as an anti-drug poster in the slums of Washington, D.C.
Benini changed his approach, arriving at the idea that art should be used to create beauty. For several years, he developed a “Rose” theme, with rose-shaped canvasses and vivid colors. Then he moved into his “Geometric” period, using up to 30 coats of paint to create a 3-D look on curved designs. A more recent theme is his “Courting Kaos” series, based loosely on the scientific Chaos theories.
The Beninis welcome groups (especially school classes) or individuals to visit and enjoy their 140-acre sculpture ranch and gallery, but they request that visitors call ahead for an appointment (830-868-5244 or www.Benini.com), since they are not always available.
Benini works at night, so he is not usually up and around before 11 a.m.
You won’t have to be well-versed in artistic
terms or concepts to enjoy a tour. Even a rank amateur will be impressed
with the works of art that are exhibited at the Benini Sculpture Ranch, and
it is easy to imagine that some talented youngster could be inspired here to
become, perhaps, the next Benini.