Benini Foundation and
Hot Springs Life and Home Magazine, 2005
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On a recent trip to
Fredericksburg, Texas, I accepted an
invitation to meet former Hot Springs artist, Benini, and his wife,
Lorraine, “on location” in nearby Johnson City.
By some accounts, 64-year old Benini is renegade renaissance man; by
others, godfather of the arts revival in Hot Springs, Ark., a role he
rejected for a more stable creative environment.
Not knowing what to expect from this
modern day conquistador, we made our way down rural Texas dirt roads, past
goat herds and a donkey before reaching the
Benini Foundation Sculpture Ranch.
The 140-acre natural Hill Country environment is dedicated to large-scale
international contemporary sculpture and is open by appointment to art
lovers, student groups and wandering journalists like me.
The dust kicked up by our SUV settled
to reveal an apostle-looking man dressed in black, head to toe. The gray
bearded Benini beckoned us toward a 14,000 sq. ft. hanger-type building
which contains his working studio, a substantial fine arts library,
offices and galleries that span 40 years of paintings.
Inside, I slipped into another world. His world. A mesmerizing mixture of
light, color and Puccini’s O Mia Babbino Caro immediately
massaged my emotions to the point of tears.
“On certain nights,” he interrupted,
“since I paint only at night, when I take a break and walk into the
exhibit areas of my Studio, I place a chair in the middle of this
cavernous building and play different music as loudly as possible.
Sometimes, it’s Bach’s Mass in B minor; Monteverdi’s Selva
Morale e Spirituale, Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire or
Willie Nelson’s ballads.”
“Suddenly, I become the captain of this space ship hurtling trough the
universe at 66,000 miles per hour,” he continues, “and I find myself
watching a young man in a faraway place 300 years from now standing in
front of one of my paintings trying to break my code, and until he does
that, he is forced to look at it.”
Just before we arrived, Benini had spent three hours talking with a group
of 30 students from a nearby school. Wondering if he would have anything
left to say, I relaxed a little when he offered me a cup of espresso.
“It’s the only way I can learn,” says the artist who hasn’t exhibited his
work in a commercial gallery since 1975. “With kids, up to high school,
they haven’t fully become men and women yet. They’re still curious. They
teach me what is still relevant in their generation. That’s important,
because I’ve shaped a career by making myself better, not by catering to a
Born in Imola, Italy on April 17, 1941, Benini describes his first
memories in black and white, mixed with sounds of patriotic songs and
speeches blasting from loud speakers.
In an interview for
he elaborates, “The war was all around us. The bombings did not really
scare me at the time, as they turned into slumber parties in underground
shelters. Even the final bombing that destroyed our home, when the allies
broke through the German “Gothic Lines” between Florence and Bologna, was
not that bad because we survived it hiding under the stairway, the only
part of our house to remain standing. My mother, however, was a nervous
wreck for years after that. My fear came when I saw flatbed trucks loaded
with the corpses of former Fascists killed by partisans under the watch of
the Allies, and the fear smelled bad to me. To the day, the thought of war
brings back that darkness.”
Choosing the artistic path of color helped make Benini better instead of
bitter. Part of that path brought him and his bride to Hot Springs, where
they lived and worked in an 1886 Victorian 10,000 sq. ft. building in
“We were charmed by the similarities to the spa cities in northern Italy.
Although our friends said we were committing professional suicide, we
packed up the paintings and left Florida.”
Benini arrived with a vision. Soon,
local artists and gallery owners, as well as members of the surrounding
community, caught his enthusiasm. More galleries opened, and more artists
moved to town. Painters and sculptors from Japan, France, and Italy joined
the migration to Hot Springs until nearly a dozen galleries operated in
the six blocks opposite Bath House Row. Monthly Gallery Walks turned
Central Avenue into a parade of art enthusiasts.
“We never asked people to move to Hot Springs and open a gallery in the
Arts District,” he huffs. “We simply invited them to be a part of a
cultural experiment because we truly believed it was possible to create a
Creative courage came at a price.
“We have nothing but good memories of
our time in Hot Springs,” he explains. “What always intrigued us, however,
was the initial reticence of the City fathers to recognize the incredible
gift from the artists to revitalize a dying downtown. You can’t build
history; you have to have it there to rebuild. We simply reclaimed areas
that had been abandoned by others. The way to keep the Historic District
vital is by exacting the heaviest taxes from property owners who refuse to
restore their buildings, not the other way around.”
The Beninis moved to Texas in 1999, where they live in a contemporary
cedar and limestone home atop Rattlesnake Mountain.
“Although Arkansas is the Land of
Opportunity, it was not to be our last move. Fortuitous circumstances
brought us to the Hill Country and this craggy hilltop overlooking a green
fertile valley. It was as if all the glimpses of beauty we had found in
our journeys came together. Best of all, I found that in the Texas state
of mind, there are no limits.”
Since January, the Benini Foundation Galleries and Sculpture Ranch have
hosted a series of arts and culture programs. Held the last weekend of the
Arts Encounter Series
highlights the work of artists and other creative professionals, like Gary
Simmons of Hot Springs. Benini is also working on a new exhibit, Faces of
“As much as we loved Hot Springs, we really didn’t want to be remembered
as the godparents of the arts,” he reflects. “I’m not a promoter at heart.
I’m an artist whose end is near. Coming to Texas is allowing me to create
the footprint of my mature work without having to tie up a lot of loose
ends. I want to put on a good last performance.”
At the invitation of longtime friend and arts advocate, Bess Sanders,
Benini will return to Hot Springs for the 200th Gallery Walk celebration
to be held February 4, 2006. His work will be exhibited on the second
floor of Gallery Central.