In yesterday’s post, I described my trip to see Randy Dalton’s The Blue Grotto with Steve Berg (from Nichols-Berg Gallery) and encaustic painter and art instructor Clarissa Shanahan, and mixed-media artist Ellen Benson. Before venturing out to West Philadelphia to see Dalton’s art installation, Ellen invited us to see her home and studio in West Mount Airy. This is my record of that visit.
I first met mixed-media artist Ellen Benson earlier this year when she was included in a show of found-object art, outsider art, and found art called “Urban Jewels” at Nichols-Berg Gallery in Chestnut Hill. She was showing her mixed-media assemblages made up of bits of wood and old tools, dolls, yard-sale finds, and anything else she could get her hands on. With her wild mane of hair, the quirky and colorful clothes she wears, and her lovable and slightly kooky personality, I fell in love with her upbeat style right away.
The spacious row home she shares in West Mount Airy with her husband of eight years is a delightfully personal museum and workshop that is a perfect balance of her colorful exuberance and her partner’s reserved minimalism. (“I’m in a mixed marriage” she said. “My husband’s a minimalist.”)
When Clarissa, Steve and I first approached the house, we weren’t sure if we were at the right address, because it looks just like any other house on the street. It wasn’t until we approached the door, and noticed an “altar” (Ellen’s term) of little treasures that we knew we were in the right place. Upon entering, the first thing we noticed was this wall, completely covered with figures from her studio and around the world. One cannot help but get excited looking at all of them, knowing there will be many, many more to come as we tour the site. We were like three kids in a toy shop. Steve’s favorite find on the wall were tiny sculptural heads fashioned from crumpled magazine photos and presented in a hand-made cardboard box like holiday ornaments are stored in. (At lower left in the photo above.)
I loved it all, but especially Ellen’s artifacts from Mexico, such as this Calaveras figure for dia de los Muertos. Clarissa’s favorite was one of Ellen’s many assemblages, which resemble tiny theaters, complete with stage, sets and actor/puppet/dolls crafted from materials such as fabric, paper and clay.
In the dining room, Ellen showed us some more of her collection, including pieces by outsider artists such as Jim Bloom (formerly of Philadelphia, he was one of my customers at the art supply store in East Falls I owned until two years ago. An early piece of his can just be seen at lower right in the photo.) Jim was represented by George Viener at Outsider Folk Art Gallery in Reading, PA when he lived in Philadelphia. Ellen said that Jim decided to move to California recently, but the gallery at the Goggleworks in Reading still represents him (to some degree at least), and we vowed to make a pilgrimage together to see it again.
Ellen regaled us with some stories about the artists she collected, or their paintings, but I regret that I didn’t write their names and now I’ve forgotten them. All three of us loved the large painting seen at the right edge in the photo.
Whatever restraint Ellen exhibits in the neatly curated first floor (out of deference to her husband’s preference for minimalism?), her studio which occupies most of the basement is a dumpster diver’s dream. Tucked away in every shelf, nook and cranny were hundreds of containers of every sort: boxes, trays, suitcases, old food tins and organizers with the most wonderful treasures either collected or made by Ellen. The entire basement serves as a kind of palette for her, only instead of blobs of colored paint, her palette consists of a pile of figurative paintings here, a suitcase full of doll masks there… I was reminded of the account of Joseph Cornell‘s house in Flushing, New York. The great assemblage artist did not receive wide acclaim until after his death, upon which his basement studio was found stuffed with boxes, full of potential materials, and neatly labeled with titles like “flotsam” and “bottle museums”.¹ I was stunned when I learned that although Ellen has lived in this house for more than 30 years, she only began her creative life when she left her corporate job in 2002. I couldn’t believe the volume and maturity of the work I saw there, for someone who’s been creating for less than ten years.
Some neat-freaks may have headed for the door at this point, but we were convinced we were in the presence of a kind of genius. Whatever material Ellen works with, a clear purpose can be discerned. Every surface is worked, every scrap is saved and recycled into something new. There were flat files full of simple scribbles and washes of color on paper, waiting to be cut, torn, pasted and collaged into works of art. There were suitcases (painted inside and out of course) full of half-finished ideas. There was a pile of sticks and twigs, some of which had the beginnings of figures modeled onto them out of air-dry clay. There were boxes of finished paintings on paper by the dozen, and Steve was quick to snap some of them up for his gallery (to be shown there in December, I think he said.) There were stuffed animal sculptures, with heads re-made in Ellen’s signature style.
It was all so overwhelming, I had the sense of stumbling upon an ancient and vast trove of priceless artifacts from another civilization. My instinct was to catalog and preserve, then publish and exhibit! I wanted to share this wonderful work with the world. Of course, I do not mean to imply that we discovered Ellen Benson and her work— she’s been doing this for a long time and is well-known in certain creative circles here and elsewhere. Her work has even been included in books about outsider and folk art. But my sense was that Ellen herself gets overwhelmed by the enormity of what she’s creating, and much of it never gets finished or used or seen by the public. And that is something I can identify with as well, speaking as an artist who constantly struggles to maintain a balance between the many demands made on us—to constantly develop new work, market and sell past work, and also do the work that pays the bills. Let’s hope that she has a long and fruitful art career, and that more of her work gets seen (and owned!) by the public.
Ellen Benson’s work can be seen in numerous places in and around Philadelphia and the East Coast. She will teach an assemblage workshop on October 29th at Nichols-Berg Gallery ($125 + $15 materials fee), and will also have pieces available there in December. Ellen’s involvement with Mount Airy Art Garage is growing, and she will soon have a studio there. Her work is also seen on InLiquid.
[Edit: As a result of this post, an exhibit of Ellen’s work titled “Diva Dolls” is now on display at the Philadelphia International Airport, between terminals A-East and B (ticketed passengers only).]
¹Joseph Cornell’s Explorations: Art on File, by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan. Page 221 of “Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp… in resonance”, the catalog which accompanied the joint exhibition of the Cornell collection from the Menil Foundation in Houston, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Duchamp collection in 1998-1999. Published by Cantz Verlag.