Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Thomas Hart Benton's Studio

Last week while I was in Kansas City, I drove over to this lovely old neighborhood to tour Thomas Hart Benton's home and studio.  The house is located at 3616 Belleview.    He and his wife Rita purchased this home during the Depression for the unbelievable price of $6,000.  It is a large two-story house constructed from native, quarried limestone.  He converted the carriage house in the back to a studio and  devoted his life to his art.  He died there at the age of 86 while working on a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

  He kept to a very strict schedule.  He rose every morning at the same time, breaking only for his two-martini lunch before going back to work.  I suspect at dinner he had another couple of drinks.  Our guide quoted the artist as saying "The only thing I taught Jackson Pollack was  how to drink a fifth a day."  (Hmmm.  Maybe that explains Benton's fluid, distorted imagery!)  Whether slightly tipsy or stone sober, the man could paint!  I love his colorful renditions of life in Missouri.   Although influenced by cubism in his early years, it is his "regional" paintings of farmers, train engineers and plain ole everyday folks dancing, eating, and enjoying life that makes him an American icon among artists.

Benton spent the evenings with his family, playing the piano, reading or watching t.v.  But at eight o'clock, by God, it was time for bed.  Even when his house was filled with guests, he would bid them all "good night" and climb the stairs to his tiny corner bedroom on the second floor.    It was Rita's job to entertain the baffled company left behind and many of them were important politicians and fellow artists and writers.

Defending his strange behavior, Rita told everyone, "Tom is a genius."  Their marriage was sometimes tumultuous, but they remained together for 52 years.  She died eleven weeks after he did-a symbiotic relationship if ever there was one.   This is why I enjoy peaking inside the homes and studios of great artists,.  They all have a muse, it seems, or a loyal spouse who keeps the fire burning and enables them to do what they do best.

Thomas Hart Benton's studio is as he left it.  The cans of paint, the brushes, random pieces of art and junk, all stuff which stirred those mysterious creative juices, serves as a monument to a rich and colorful life.

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