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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.”

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Plowing ahead

Hot Springs sculptor and metalsmith Marshall Miller worked primarily in wood until the gift of a welder 20 years ago changed the direction of his art. 

Regardless of the materials, Miller’s style is simple, clean, abstract figurative representation.

“I’m just trying to pull out the essence of something, really,” he said.

His subjects include both animals — birds are a favorite — and the human form.

Miller’s array of sculptures populates his home and backyard. One of the fun pieces outside is a steel cutout of the characters from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Bremen Town Musicians.” The showstopper is “Hug Me,” a tall, brightly painted ambulatory piece that was featured outside one of the historic bathhouses during a Hot Springs juried art competition in 1997. The curved arms of the sculpture tempt visitors to respond to the sculpture’s title.

Miller’s impressively equipped studio sits just a few yards from his sculpture garden. 

Art dealer Dale Blackwelder, a member of the Hot Springs Arts Advisory Committee, admires Miller’s workmanship and quality of work.

“He has a real good eye for composition and he is very attentive to detail and quality. Everything is so precise,” Blackwelder said. “His execution is superb. It’s purposefully done for longevity.”  

Miller recently began exploring incorporating tools and other found objects in his sculptures. An ambitious example of this new direction can be seen with “Plowing the Troposphere,” one of 10 temporary, outdoor artworks selected for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Art in its Natural State regional competition. 

It may surprise viewers of his vast array of works that Miller did not study art formally and did not really begin creating sculptures until he was in his mid-30s.

Miller credits the beginning of his love of art to his fourth-grade teacher, who taught “the equivalent of a college freshman-level art appreciation course,” he said. Each student in the class created a notebook in which they pasted images of artworks and wrote information about them. He still has his notebook.

“He has been a student of art ever since I’ve known him,” said his wife, Jeanne.

Miller attended Hendrix College, the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

After college, Miller worked in the construction industry until retirement. The work took him all over the South. He has lived in Georgia, Texas, Tennessee and Florida, and on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. He met Jeanne in Savannah, Ga., in 1976, and they married in 1980.

They eventually moved back to Arkansas and ultimately settled in Hot Springs in 1990. Miller was also the primary caretaker of their son, Marsh, as Jeanne travelled regularly for work and their daughter, Jessica, was attending college.

Miller wanted to try his hand at 3D work for a while, and his technical experience helped him segue into creating sculptures.

“All my life, I developed skills in the construction industry, for many different abilities,” he said. “By the time I got started, I was already pretty well equipped to manipulate materials. It wasn’t a matter of me having to develop my capabilities along with my concept. I was pretty well able to attack it on any level I wanted to. I didn’t need to take any courses to manipulate wood or steel or anything else, although I had not done that much welding and all. But by that point, it was just a matter of whatever it was, I could do it.”

Miller worked primarily in wood until about 1997, when a metal sculptor friend brought by a small welder for Miller to try out.

“I got carried away with this metal sculpture and that’s been it,” he said. 

Miller has begun using found objects to create pieces like “Kyoto Bush,” which won the People’s Choice Award at the 2017 UpCycle Sculpture Festival in Hot Springs. The piece is made of discarded items including a carbide drum, a partially burned shrub, an abandoned bird nest and a dollhouse-sized pair of fried eggs.

Crow Bird”, like the upcoming “Plowing the Troposphere” installation, utilizes farm implements. The bird’s head is a sickle bar mower blade guard.

Miller lets the found objects themselves guide his process into creating a piece. “It’s more like the experience I encountered with abstract work, to where, rather than you being led during the drafting process, you’re led during the construction process to make changes. It’s kind of like there’s a spirit that enters into this whole thing that you access at some point, and if you’re smart, you’ll go with it.”

He wants to continue exploring with scraps and tools. "Taking stuff out and putting it together and seeing what I come up with. It’s a change. It’s not a radical change in my style but it’s a development. You know, you’ve got to keep something going to keep things from getting stale. And that’s what this is about. Plus, it’s enjoyable.”

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Making big stuff

Even in a gallery full of diverse mediums — ceramics, oil paintings, jewelry, textiles, wooden sculptures, just to name a few — Russell Lemond’s aluminum sculptures stand out.

Inspired by nature, architecture or simply the attributes of the material at hand, Lemond transforms basic aluminum sheets into hanging and freestanding sculptures with a signature holograph-like finish. Mobiles, skyscrapers and fish have been among his favorite subjects and can be seen in the art gallery of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in downtown Little Rock. 

Lemond is creating his largest freestanding work yet this spring. “Water as Needed” is one of 10 temporary, outdoor artworks selected for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Art in its Natural State regional competition. 

Aluminum is a lightweight material, so despite its size the sculpture only weighs 125 pounds. 

”It can be carried by two men,” he said. 

The sculpture will be prominently placed in the institute’s front lawn. 

Lemond said he was “tickled to death” to be picked for the Institute’s competition. “One thing I’m really happy about in being selected for this show is that [it includes] Arkansas artists. There is so much stuff around town that’s monumental stuff and it’s good stuff, but they’re not from Arkansas.”

Lemond has only been making aluminum art since 2004.

He graduated with a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville in 1978. He worked at IBM right out of graduate school and then spent about 16 years in medical equipment sales. 

Lemond became burned out on sales and was tired of being away from his wife, Karen, and their two young sons while traveling for work. So he left the sales world and went on to own a series of businesses over the next couple of decades, including a restaurant. He then worked for a nonprofit organization as a business consultant in the Delta. After the organization lost one of its major funders, Lemond lost his job. 

“My entrepreneurial blood runs thick, so I was like, ‘What can I do to generate an income?’ I’ve always had an artistic whim. I’ve always enjoyed drawing. I was pretty good at building furniture.” 

The idea of working with aluminum came from a trip to a boat shop with his father a couple of years before. “We pulled up, I saw all this shiny diamond plate and aluminum in their scrap pile and filed it away in the back of my head,” he said. 

When Lemond’s wife asked him to make two bedside tables, he returned to the boat shop with plans and had them fabricate the tables because he didn’t have the equipment to do so. With encouragement from family friends, Lemond began making furniture himself out of aluminum and diamond plate. 

He quickly sold his first couple of pieces on eBay. He still sells pieces through his own website, appropriately titled IndustrialLook.com

A distinct feature of Lemond’s pieces is the holographic-like swirl pattern, which he creates using a 3M bristle disc in an angle grinder. 

“The swirling came from cleaning up the metal, because aluminum is such a soft metal and scratches real easy, and that’s why I like it because it scratches so easy,” he explained. “I just go over it totally random with a bristle disc flat on it to make just a real matte finish. And then I’ll come back later and do the swirl pattern that I kind of pick out for the piece.” 

Lemond said he takes great pleasure in coming up with tongue-in-cheek names for his works. One piece, which featured sharp parts, he titled “Don’t Poke Your Eye Out!” 

The piece for Art in its Natural State will represent something that is growing, he said. “Being made out of aluminum, I called it ‘Water as Needed.’”

In addition to The Butler Center, Lemond’s work can be found at other Central Arkansas Library System properties. He created the decorative gates in front of the Ron Robinson Theater and a freestanding sculpture at the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library

“Most people don't realize that a lot of these public art projects often take a year or more (usually) to complete,” said Colin Thompson, art administrator for The Butler Center. “Russell has good ideas. He's creative, willing to see a project through to completion and he is game to try something new.” 

Lemond creates his pieces in his workshop at his Little Rock home. His roomy-but-cozy workshop includes a variety of large and specialty tools. A plasma cutter allows him to easily cut curves and circles out of the aluminum. His decades-old stomp shear cuts or bends the metal in straight lines by using his body weight. 

His Miniature Dachshunds, Moe and Ella, pop in and out through a doggie door when the shop is quiet. 

As busy as Lemond is, he isn’t a full-time artist. Lemond started a plumbing inspection business in 2010. He said the business allows him the flexibility to continue working as an artist and the means to create the larger pieces. 

“I’ve reached the point now where I’m really starting to like making big stuff.”

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