The Benini Foundation
Johnson City Record Courier, November 11, 2004
The Benini Foundation and Sculpture Ranch will be open with extended hours November 12 through 14 for the 2004 Art Past Dark. Benini will talk about life and art daily at 2:00 p.m. the Johnson city Record Courier requested this exclusive interview for our readers.
For the last five years, Benini and his wife Lorraine, have lived six miles west of Johnson City. Benini was born in Italy, the Emilia-Romagna region, in 1941. At the age of 15, he left home and earned a living by producing two or three paintings a day as he traveled from village to village on a moped with his easels and supplies. Several pieces from these early years, stored carefully in a chest by his mother, were recently discovered and brought to Johnson city.
His journeys took him throughout Europe. After three years in the Alpine Ski Patrol, he worked on ocean-going Italian cruise ships and settled on Grand Bahama Island in 1965. From here, his career was launched with solo exhibitions at the international level. In bold, almost brash, paintings with hard-edged hues of bright colors he depicted island life, as well as studies on human character. Through the years, 160 one-man exhibitions, primarily in universities, museums and public institutions have featured his paintings.
In 1977, Benini immigrated to America, and bought a century-old house in Evinston, Florida to set up his studio, just south of the University of Florida at Gainesville. Here, he searched for materials and methods to free his designs from traditional square-cornered compositions, and painted his first Superroses.
A University of Florida graduate student majoring in Journalism and Communications named Lorraine Link interviewed Benini about his 1978 exhibition there. They eventually married, and today she manages the administrative aspects of his career. In 1979, they moved to the shores of Lake Harney, part of the north-flowing St. Johns River northeast of Orland. The roses on canvases kept growing, some 30 feet tall, alternated with traditional-format paintings of a nature directly related to his studies, travels and dream experiences.
In 1986, when the rose became the national flower of America, the organizations that processed the bill through congress asked Benini to commemorate this special designation with a painting. Although he avoids commissions, this invitation struck a special note. It was the year that Benini became an American citizen, and he decided to paint a piece in appreciation to his adoptive country.
This last painting of the rose, “L’Ultima Rosa” was displayed at several of his museum exhibitions in the late 80’s – a white rose floating before the American flag. It hung in the white House in 1992, next to the Lincoln Bedroom, after being acquired by Virginia Kelley for her son, President William J. Clinton. It is now scheduled to hang in the official Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Soon after, following a six-week journey across America, one of many on his discovery of his adoptive country, Benini’s work changed dramatically.
“All through the journey I kept thinking about the 120-degree angle,” Benini said. “Back at the studied using my compass I drew a cube that, because of its 120-degree angle, appeared to fly out of the paper.” Intrigued, Benini decided to render the cube on canvas stretched on a panel cut to the outline of the cube. He applied brackets to the back of the shaped canvas so the resultant shadows accentuated the illusion. And thus were born the geometric pieces that seem three-dimensional. Through the years, he developed a system where canvas is laminated to aluminum panels cut to the required design.
Since the age of 10, Benini reads on the average a book a day, and through the years, he has accumulated a library of about 15,000 non-fiction books of many topics ranging from metaphysics, architecture, medicine, mathematics, philosophy and the fine arts. Basically a self-taught artist, when he addresses student and university groups who visit regularly, he stresses the importance of reading.
His advises to would-be artists, is “Read, and Work, work, work.”
In 1988 Benini and Lorraine moved to Hot Springs National Park where they bought and restored a 10,000 sq. ft. 1886 Victorian building. During the 12 years they lived in Hot Springs, the “cultural experiment” they started developed into a healthy art community. Most ideas for the Hot Springs Gallery Walk, the Historic Architecture tours, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, etc. were born at their dinner table – fine arts events active to this day.
It was at one of the benefit auctions in Hot Springs National Park that the Beninis bought a travel package that brought them to San Antonio, and resulted in their purchase of the ranch and relocation to the Hill Country.
To visit The Benini Foundation and Sculpture Ranch, art lovers usually drive through Johnson City, turn left on Flat Creek Road, and after five miles turn right on Shiloh Road to discover Benini’s ranch, Le Stelle (The Stars.). The project is free of charge, open by appointment.
Benini’s thirteen-feet black granite sculpture “Montezuma’ and Peter Mangan’s “American Ushabti” are immediately visible on the grounds.
“The beauty and variety of the 140 acres of Le Stelle was ideal to the display of the sculptures we had acquired through the years,” Lorraine Benini said. As other artists volunteered to display their work here, the project evolved into what Benini called the “Sculpture Ranch.” Some of the pieces are in the permanent collection of the Benini Foundation and Sculpture Ranch. Interested collectors are put in touch directly with the artists to learn more about acquisitions or commissions.
One spiritual godfather of the project, Icelandic sculptor Eyfells veteran of the Venice Biennale and Corcoran Gallery, is establishing his own sculpture project now between Johnson City and Fredericksburg.
At the base of Rattlesnake Mountain, where the Beninis’ contemporary home is located, the Studios Building houses a showroom with a lifetime of paintings by Benini including his current work – a new series – Courting Kaos.
Paintings and sculptures of guest artists, friends like Cunningham and Edwards, several Italian artists including sculptors Calonaci and Mocenni, and the highly detailed oils of masterful painter, Renzo Galardini from Pisa, are also on display.
Every day, Benini strikes a regime for his creativity. Daylight hours, after lunch at Ronnie’s and espresso at Rogers, are devoted to outdoor tasks – creating sculpture sites, sometimes assembling sculptures, and shaping the landscape by trimming cedars into bonsai-like trees. And he welcomes art lovers, friends and students to the ranch.
At night, Benini is in his studio, remaining there sometimes until dawn. With his colors, his books and music that ranges from classical to Texas bands and jazz, his path to mastery evolves…
Before his long night of work however, early each evening, at Le Stelle, the Beninis gather on their mountaintop porch facing west, celebrating sunset. It is a long way from Emilia-Romagna, yet only a short step away from the next painting.
“The Sculpture Ranch evolved as we first began to install works from our own collection on the hills of our property,” Lorraine Benini said. “And then, sculptor-friends were seeing the landscape as ideal for the display of their works. This project reflects the love of art and the cooperative spirit of artist from around the country and abroad.”
Marshall Cunningham, MD., who has a number of pieces on the project, will speak Saturday, November 13th at 11:00. The focus of his talk will be the eight piece “Gathering”, sculptures up to 16 feet tall that he has completed and installed during the past year.
The newest piece is a filigree-like steel and alloy piece created by Texas Lloyd Watson, 16 feet tall, with the capability of responding to the wind in a slow, rotating movement. It joins 22 other pieces on display.
Tom Edwards, born in Missouri in 1935, holds six college degrees including a Master of Fine Arts in Visual Art from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Doctor of Dental Surgery. His work, “Journey, Celestial Sign”, was the first to be installed on the ranch.
Peter Mangan lives in San Francisco and Blanco. He earned a BFA from the University of Texas and his MFA from San Jose State University in 1987. Mangan’s piece, entitled American Ushabti, was completed after his travels to Egypt where he learned about the ancient Egyptian statuettes of the afterlife.
Mocenni, based in Italy, has been a professional sculptor for 45 years with massive public art commissions throughout Europe and the Americas. His large-scale abstract and geometric designs are executed primarily in limestone and Carrara marble. Mocenni executed his piece “La Visita” from Texas cedar during his recent visit here.
Loren Impson, in preparation for his two pieces, brought huge frameworks of steel, and completed them on site at the Sculpture Ranch. An authority on the application of ferro cement to large-scale sculptures, he applied this material on the erected pieces, and within weeks, completed “Aspiration and Determination” on site.
Joseph Buchanan, who has worked in stone, for 25 years, is currently earning a teaching degree in Fine Arts at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa.
Randy Jewart lives and works in Austin. His sculpture has been exhibited at the Chicago Pier Walk and is in the collection of the Museum of Outdoor Art in Denver. He has served on the board of directors of the International Sculpture Center.
Eyfells represented Iceland at the 1993 Venice Biennale and has exhibited internationally including the United Nations Headquarters and the Corcoran Museum of Art. Trained as an architect, he subsequently earned his Master of Fine Arts Degree and taught Sculpture at the University of Central Florida for more than 30 years. Eyfells, who works primarily on large-scale outdoor concrete, molten aluminum and cast bronze sculptures, currently is establishing his headquarters for Receptual Art in project between Johnson City and Fredericksburg. His “Triangular Linguisticities”, molten metal triangles hanging from an oak tree at the Benini Foundation and Sculpture Ranch is one of the most popular pieces.