The Benini Foundation Galleries
& Sculpture Ranch
377 Shiloh Road
Johnson City, Texas USA 78636

830-868-5244 Studios Building
830-868-5224 Studios Building

Benini Foundation and Sculpture Ranch
Hot Springs Life and Home Magazine, 2005
Article may be viewed also at:

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 particular market.”

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
Elegant Texan, 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 Historic Downtown.

“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 magical experience.”

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 month, 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 God.

“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.