Unlike Shepherd’s other six academic deans, Dow Benedict has spent his entire career at Shepherd University. Benedict came to Shepherd in 1971, a year after receiving his M.S. from the University of Missouri. For 44 years he’s taught art, becoming chair of the Division of Arts and Humanities in 1999, a title that changed to dean, School of Arts and Humanities by 2003 after an academic reorganization.
Among Benedict’s accomplishments as dean are overseeing the ongoing renovation of the Frank Center, which was built in 1981, and construction of both phases of the Center for Contemporary Arts. Phase one of the CCA was dedicated in 2008, followed by phase two in 2013.
Benedict grew up in Missouri. He was born in Columbia and raised in Fulton, the town where former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered his famous Sinews of Peace (or Iron Curtain Speech) at Westminster College in 1946. The National Churchill Museum is located there, housed in a Christopher Wren-designed church that was moved to Fulton from London.
Benedict’s mother worked as a secretary for the vice president of academic affairs at a William Woods University. His father was a printer, which no doubt strongly influenced Benedict to go into art.
“I think one of the difficult things for any artist to say is how he ended up doing it,” Benedict said. “We used to joke all the time that you became an artist because you couldn’t do anything else. But in essence most of us never decided to become an artist. You simply were.”
Because his father was a printer, Benedict constantly had access to reams of paper as a child.
“My parents’ earliest memories of me involved me being loaded down with paper and drawing forever and ever and ever,” he said. “So it’s always been something I’ve done.”
An early start to becoming an artist and printmaker
Benedict said after school in second or third grade he would help his father with the printing by setting type or running a small clamshell press. Benedict’s grandfather, a self-taught cabinetmaker who built furniture, also played a role in influencing his decision to go into art. Benedict had access to his grandfather’s tools, which were in the basement of the house where he grew up, and he used them to build things.
Starting at age 14, Benedict began doing apprenticeships with several artists. From ages 14-16 he worked with a painter/sculptor and graduate student who lived in Fulton. Between ages 16-18 Benedict worked with George Tutt, a former art professor and founder of the Missouri Watercolor Society. Benedict also was studio assistant for Frank Stack, a printmaker/painter who also created underground comics, and the sculptor William Klapp.
“That’s a huge part of my education—just being around them and being in the studio,” Benedict said. “You’re doing errands, but what you’re really doing is understanding what the life of an artist actually is and seeing the business side of how they operated and the discipline that they had.”
At age 15, before he had a driver’s license, Benedict regularly drove the 60-mile round trip to the University of Missouri library to fetch books that artist Jim Clark used to research background for his paintings. Benedict recalls some of his other duties during these apprenticeships included stretching canvas, laying in background colors, working as an edition printer, and casting sculptures under some fairly dicey circumstances.
“So to me, a piece has to say something or I don’t find much value in it personally. It’s fine for somebody else, but the work I want to be surrounded by is work that makes a statement, that takes a stand on something, that tries to motivate you or move you in a particular direction.”
“We were experimenting with fiberglass and plastic epoxies, that kind of stuff,” he said. “Killing brain cells is basically what we were doing. We had no respirators, and we were working in a Missouri basement with casement windows getting headaches.”
Benedict said some of the artists he apprenticed with were fairly political, so their work reflected current events and was often controversial. That meant doing a lot of research to understand the background and assure accuracy.
“It meant devouring newspapers, watching news, reading news magazines, and going to lectures for the material to make work from,” he said. “They were stating opinions through their work. So to me, a piece has to say something or I don’t find much value in it personally. It’s fine for somebody else, but the work I want to be surrounded by is work that makes a statement, that takes a stand on something, that tries to motivate you or move you in a particular direction.”
Benedict believes each of the apprenticeships played a role in influencing his own career path, in part by taking the romanticism out of pursuing art.
“It’s very easy to have a romantic idea of what being an artist is, and instead you see the drudgery of it, the amount of discipline that goes into it,” he said. “I walked out of those apprenticeships with sayings like ‘work makes art,’ not ‘a muse makes art.’ There was a lot of sheer discipline and research that went into some of those artists’ work.”
In college Benedict earned degrees in painting, printmaking, and sculpture. These days he doesn’t produce as much art as he once did because his focus is more on his duties as dean. However, Benedict still participates in an occasional invitational or competitive show. Benedict said when he first came to Shepherd he produced a lot of prints and etchings that were handled by some galleries.
The Dream House era
In recent years Benedict has focused on sculpture, and he frequently uses the theme of Dream House. Benedict, who is an avid National Public Radio listener, came up with the theme after hearing a story about Kosovo during the war and how difficult it was to settle the conflicts between the people there because they interpret things differently. He gave the example of blackbirds on the front lawn, which are a bad omen to some and a good omen to others.
After he heard the NPR story, Benedict began incorporating crows, a bird that had always fascinated him, into his sculptures. Fire is another element he includes. Many of his pieces become big and heavy, so he puts them on wheels and makes them into a dimension that fits through a doorway. Benedict estimates he’s created about 30 sculptures based on the theme, but most are not around for art aficionados to enjoy. That’s because once Benedict finishes a sculpture he’ll put it in a show and if it’s not purchased he brings it home, dismantles it, and uses the parts for the next piece he’s working on.
“I don’t get rid of the parts so I have 200-some odd crows that are all cast, all wrapped in boxes, so as I need them they come out,” he said. “I probably have 20 or 30 house structures that are finished, but I may decide that I’m covering one in tar and that I’m going to tar and feather the piece. I’m playing with those ideas right now based on the fact that we’re suddenly discovering racial issues in conversations, and so tar and feather and those kinds of images start coming up with me again.
“There’s no practicality about what I do,” he added. “I don’t have to make a living doing the sculptures and that really frees me. I don’t have to worry about people liking them. I don’t have to worry about people wanting to own them or buying them because I’m not making a living off of them. There’s a great freedom in that sense.”
Benedict said people have contacted him after a show to ask about buying a piece that he’s already taken apart. In two cases he agreed to recreate the piece, but it was not an exact copy of the original because he doesn’t document the sculptures by taking photos or creating drawings of them. Unlike many artists, Benedict is just not very attached to his work.
“It’s the making of art that’s important to me, it’s not the end product,” he said. “I couldn’t care less about the end product.”
Benedict tells the story about defending his master’s thesis in college—a huge sculpture cast in fiberglass that he estimates he invested about $500 and many thousands of hours in. A faculty member he apprenticed under asked Benedict how he felt about his finished work, and Benedict said, “I couldn’t care less.” So the faculty member pushed the sculpture over and it shattered.
“For probably 30 seconds I wanted to make him a permanent part of the wall and then that feeling went away and my response was ‘I’m not cleaning it up,’” Benedict said. “No, I don’t care. Once they’re done, they’re done. I like making them, I don’t like finishing them.”
That’s true in other parts of Benedict’s life—he likes coming up with ideas and getting them to the point where he knows they’re going to work, then he moves on to the next one.
“Somebody else can bring it to completion because I don’t care anymore,” he said.
Pondering the fact that he’s the only dean whose entire career has been at Shepherd, Benedict said there are advantages and disadvantages to that. He points out the other deans have different experiences to draw on and different ways to approach an issue, bringing new ideas. But what he brings is a wealth of knowledge about Shepherd’s history, and over the years he’s gotten to know just about everyone on campus.
“I make a point of knowing who everyone is. I make a point of knowing what strengths and abilities people have, and what interests they have,” he said. “It makes it easy for me when we want to do something controversial. I know where the controversy is going to be, I know how to talk to those people, and I know what gets them motivated. I just have a capital there that I wouldn’t have moving from place to place.
“When you work in a system long enough, you know what’s valuable and what’s not,” he added.
Listen to the interview with Dow Benedict HERE.