Hello, Cool World: Painter, Karl Benjamin - Page 3

SoCal painter reconnects his hard-edge modern art with classic artifacts of mid-century California

Though Benjamin painted every day, he and Beverly spent their careers teaching and raising three children. Benjamin taught art, first in public schools, then at Pomona College and Claremont Graduate School, both in Claremont. He retired from painting in 1995, slowed by a bad back and "a bunch of stuff."

"I used to fantasize that one thing about being a painter or a poet is, you never have to quit," he says. "But I quit without a problem, and I was an everyday painter."

three paintings by karl benjamin

Since retiring, Benjamin has been enjoying his home ("It's very beautiful and I feel very close to it, he says") and his garden; he planted every tree. He reads, and he and Beverly entertain friends and family. For the past five years, Benjamin's been busy with galleries and shows. His paintings, which sell in the mid-five figures, have been in group shows, art fairs, and museum exhibits across the country and in Europe.

Benjamin never intended to become an artist. He moved to the nearby town of Redlands after World War II at 19, after a brief stint in the Navy. Hired to teach sixth grade in a local public school, he was told he'd have to teach art—a subject he knew nothing about. His career goal at the time involved literature. "I didn't even pick up a brush until I was 22," he says.

"I knew the names of Michelangelo and Picasso. The principal said you have to put in 45 minutes on art. So I passed out some paper I found, and some crayons, and hoped they'd do something they'd call art," Benjamin says of his students, working class kids who had never seen a museum. "I'm not exaggerating. It was the blind leading the blind."

His lifelong methodology of teaching was developed through instinct. "I had a knack with kids, anyhow," Benjamin says. "I said, 'Pretend like you're doing long division. You have to really concentrate on your paper. They did that. They had to fill the paper with color, was the second thing. They couldn't have another paper until they'd filled up the first one with color. The third rule was: ask a kid to make a drawing and most kids draw a mountain, tree, and the sun. The rule was: you couldn't do that. It's a cliché."

"I took a group of kids from no background and had them doing really terrific stuff. I don't mean a few art stars. I mean 90 percent of the class. Everybody had an individual color sense, everybody had a sense for textures. These were all natural things, just like voices are natural."

Benjamin's success at teaching art to children suggested he could learn it himself. "I thought: if these kids with no background could do this, let's see what's in this art for me. It was a weird way for a painter to get started."

Photos: John Eng, Ernie Braun; and courtesy Karl Benjamin

Paintings by Karl Benjamin: courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts