Freedom of imagination

Art is not just a passion for internationally awarded sculptors Lee and Betty Benson — it’s the family business.

The Jackson, Tenn., couple has created works for 30 years around the globe. They, with help from their four grown children — Aaron Tennessee, Mary Elizabeth, Zachariah Chyanne and Sarah Blessing — are behind Benson Sculpture LLC

Lee and Betty work mainly in mixed media, stone, timber, wood, clay and 24k gold, producing large-scale architectural forms as well as “figurative, narrative monoliths.” 

The Bensons have works all over the United States and abroad as far as Sydney, Australia. They are expanding their footprint to Arkansas with “Sculpture Break For Tired Little Legs,” which was one of 10 temporary, outdoor artworks selected for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Art in its Natural State regional competition. 

They often build sculptures using primarily 2-by-4 standard wooden building studs. “See, with mature eyes and imaginations they transform into a very user-friendly sculptural medium for producing very complex and visually dynamic works of sculpture,” Lee said of the material. “This not only permits the artist a freedom of imagination, it also allows the viewer to immediately become involved in the work and the creative production process.”

Consideration is also given for the installation’s location so the sculpture does not compete with its environment but works with the location to give the viewer the optimum visual experience.

At the end of the exhibit, the wooden sculptures are dismantled and the lumber donated to Habitat for Humanity to use for building homes in the community where the sculptures were exhibited.

The Bensons used the material to build the 40-foot-long “Title Wave,” their first international sculpture. The award-winning environmental installation was part of 2010’s Sculpture by the Sea. Held on Bondi Beach in Sydney Harbor, the event is billed as the largest annual sculpture exhibition in the world.

Curator Daniel Pfalzgraf noted the Bensons’ thoughtful approach to and crafting of the two installations they created for the Carnegie Center for Art & History in New Albany, Ind.

“I would characterize their proposals as ‘living’ works that have a life of their own. It may start as one thing when they put their ideas down on paper, but it comes into its own as the construction unfolds and adjustments need to be made in reaction to, or in communication with, the sites they will live. While that may be disconcerting to someone with a more rigid personality, I think credit goes to the Bensons for being so adaptable and allowing their work to integrate more fully with its surroundings.”

With “I’d Rather Have A Tree,” which they installed in front of the Carnegie Center during a 2015 project, they created a grove of trees out of pre-cut lumber. The piece was intended to garner awareness that we as humans have limited resources. By using solar-powered LED lights that left light patterns on the surrounding landscape and architecture, the piece could also be viewed at night.

A shared love of nature, hiking and camping has strongly influenced their public works — especially the use of natural materials — Lee said.

“We use every tool and technique we need in order to make real that which we imagine and find compelled to realize but mostly look to natural materials: stone, wood, water, earth,” Lee said.  

“We believe that natural materials have an innate ability to relate to humans, and humans find the materials more inviting toward an aesthetic and artistic experience. Works of art can be achieved in a matter of moments or years. Art is not a time-based enterprise, but is achieved when sincere depth of meaning, clear understanding of concept, choice of right materials, commitment to craftsmanship and a sincere desire to create art is coupled with a human’s desire to be relevant.”   

Faith also plays an integral role in their work.

“I am inspired mostly by a deeply held spiritual belief in God as represented by Jesus … his natural world, the sincere uniqueness of human beings and their relationship with one another, and with their almost universal belief in a spiritual life and afterlife,” Lee said. “I find this story the most compelling story in history and its ability to foster creative endeavors second to none. The creative urge, an earth richly endowed with sincere materials, the human dimension of meaning outside the scientific, and a desire to explore that pushes us to the moon and to the divine has charmed me most of my adult life.”

Lee and Betty have created works for 30 years, but they didn’t set up their family enterprise until 2005.

“It took years to realize, but we both have great strengths that we bring to the public sculpture enterprise,” Lee said. “We found it to be better to live being involved in the same adventure as to living separate professional lives.”

“There is much more involved in living daily as an artist than just time spent in the studio. Art-making as a vocation requires a great deal of skill in a multitude of areas, and each area has its unique set of learned skills. We all try to focus our skills in the areas they are best needed. One of mine is answering questions; one of Betty’s is dealing with the public. “

After winning their first large public sculpture commission, they began to pursue public sculpture as a means of being vocationally active. They also realized that they both had strong assets that would work well in public sculpture, and it was at that point that they began Benson Sculpture LLC.

Betty was raised in Memphis, Tenn., and Lee was raised in eastern Tennessee. The pair met when they were both working at Tennessee School for the Deaf.

Lee has been involved in the arts all of his life; drawing and painting are some of his earliest memories, he says. While pursing geology at another university, his drawing professor encouraged him to go and visit the University of Tennessee, Knoxville because the university had just built a new art building. It was then in 1982 that he transferred to UT and began to pursue art as a vocation.

Lee and Betty both earned their Master of Fine Arts degrees from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. All four of their children earned degrees from UT as well.

Lee joined the faculty of Union University in Jackson in 1996. He is the chairman of UU’s art department and head of the three-dimensional art program.

The Bensons are already planning their next project.

We have an idea where we would drill a well in a 3½-inch casing. The casing would extend above ground with a 4-foot ornate brass tube. We would place a gumball machine filled with stones next to it. For a quarter, you could purchase a stone, drop it in the well, place your ear to the tube and listen to it land in the underground hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface.”