Thomas Hart Benton looks at our sunset and talks with Dad
MISSOURI artist Thomas Hart Benton often stopped by our home at Hollister, in the southwest Missouri Ozarks, en route to his beloved Buffalo River in northwest Arkansas. The Buffalo has many curving bluffs and meanders, perfect subject matter for his type of art. At our house on the shore of big Lake Table Rock, he and my father, Steve Miller, had some great discussions on art. Dad was a teacher of art at a nearby college and was also an illustrator and muralist. Benton was invited to Dad's classes. Dad said that in one of these class sessions Benton described his famous style in a very clear way. He drew two big ``C's'' on the blackboard. They were in opposition to each other and staggered. He said that this opposing force of curves set up lively tension in the work.
When visiting, Benton liked to walk around the place. Once I recall explaining to Benton about some blight that attacked the old apple tree. After I'd gone on at some length about the various horticultural problems involved, the perceptive artist, with hands in his baggy trousers' pockets, said philosophically: ``That beautiful sunset will be there long after the old apple tree is gone.''
Indeed! While I was dwelling on negative hole-in-the-doughnut things, I was missing a spectacular view with rich madder and turquoise colors as the sun set on the Ozark Mountains with the lake in the foreground.
Speaking of light, Dad said that Benton, like all great artists, was constantly aware of light conditions. The two artists would be talking outside, and Benton would interrupt with an exclamation: ``There is some great light!''
The highlight of each Benton visit was always a big meal prepared by Mom. I recall especially one super pork barbecue dinner. My grandmother Georgina Davidson Harrod was there. She and Benton were both from Neosho and loved to talk about the old days. Benton was two years younger than she. He had attended school with her sister ``Jonnie,'' later called ``Aunt Nonna.'' They recalled a young butcher by the name of M. B. Skaggs who had come to Neosho from nearby Newtonia. He would later found the Saf eway grocery and drugstore chain.
During this particular meal, our black Labrador retriever, Rowdy, sat with poor, pleading, begging eyes between Benton and me. The dessert was homemade ice cream. We were nearly finished when there was heard a loud, slurping sound. Everyone looked around in a startled manner. Benton had saved some ice cream for Rowdy and placed his half-finished bowl on the floor.
After dinner, Dad and Benton liked to discuss art in the living room. They spoke of modern art as ``pattern'' and, in fact, referred to the modernists as ``pattern-makers.''
Benton told of painting the mural in the Truman Library at Independence, climbing around on scaffolding and ladders despite a painful leg problem. He was very proud of painting a portrait of President Truman. I would love to have witnessed this sitting and painting, for they were two of the most outspoken, matter of fact, down-to-earth individuals in Missouri.
The artist's last mural was entitled ``The Sources of Country Music'' and can be seen today in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Benton told of a letter he had received from Tex Ritter commissioning the mural for the Country Music Foundation. Tex Ritter, besides his work in the entertainment field, was a keen student of history going back to a class he had taken under J. Frank Dobie at the University of Texas in Austin. He played an important role in the formation of the hall of f ame and the foundation. Benton did some torso drawings from live models in Kansas City, where he lived, and then came to the Ozark Hills to do sketches of faces.
Benton was always thorough in his work, and in some cases sculpted the scene beforehand in clay. For ``The Sources of Country Music'' he had prepared a black and white cartoon about 2 by 21/2 feet which he brought with him. His studio was a small mobile home atop a high mountain overlooking that enduring scene described earlier.
Benton had wanted Dad to help him line up models, but Dad had been ill so I was assigned this job. Benton described the types he wanted, and I would try to locate the models. Sometimes I would find someone, and he would say, ``Nope,'' and I would go back to work. Other times I was more successful. He needed a model for the girl dulcimer player in the left front foreground. I knew a student who worked at the college museum where I was employed. I brought her out to his studio, and he cryptically said, `` Yup!'' -- and immediately set about doing a drawing. He placed her in a chair on the little porch of the mobile home -- in full light -- with the valley and lake in the background.
He was always very methodical and professional in his art work: no wasted motion, all business. It took him about 20 minutes to do a grapefruit-size drawing using a stubby No. 2 red pencil (which most school kids would have probably thrown away by that time) executed on a red-covered Strathmore pad. He had asked for an eraser halfway through the drawing. I handed him a kneaded blob. He didn't look away once. I was absolutely amazed as this work came to life. It was a masterly drawing, like something out
of the art pages of the Renaissance. He was exhausted after his work and took a deserved rest. What an intense experience!
Later, in the finished mural, I noticed that he employed a bit of artistic license. He changed the girl's hair from blond to black. Benton gave this mural his all. We received the news that, very shortly after he had completed the work in his Kansas City studio, he passed on. I thought back about the beautiful Ozarks sunset. Benton's works -- perpetual sunsets -- will be there long after the old apple tree is gone.