By Linda Lambert
Take the short drive from HSB to The Benini Sculpture Ranch outside of Johnson City and you will see that the arts are alive in the Texas Hill Country. As you enter the Le Stelle Ranch and drive the road to the Benini Foundation Galleries, you will begin to experience the wonder that awaits you inside. The 140 acre property is decorated with approximately 70 large scale sculptures, carefully placed to complement the stunning hill country vistas. This is a place where art is showcased, and all are welcome to come, enjoy and learn. Over 2000 visitors come to the ranch annually, but come during the week and you may get lucky, as I was, and have a private moment in the galleries to absorb the magic in Benini’s works. When meeting this internationally known master, one might expect a primadonna to appear, but the opposite is true. He is intensely personable, loves to talk about his work and encourages others to share in conversation, as witnessed recently by the Horseshoe Bay International Club. Benini is one of those rare geniuses who found his calling early in life and has remained focused on it. He has never tired of painting, but is constantly experimenting and finding new avenues for his ideas. He generously shares his success and knowledge with all who visit his 14,000 square foot studio at no charge.
Benini’s work has been shown in 160 one man shows in the US and abroad; primarily in universities, museums and public institutions. His first show was in Milan in 1962, but his artistic talent first gained recognition when he won a contest at age 7 with a watercolor of Estense Castle in Ferrara, Italy.
Benini left home at age 15 and traveled from village to village, then country to country, setting up his easel in the piazzas, painting churches and landscapes and selling them for whatever a buyer would pay. “It was usually enough to buy pasta, wine and humble lodgings. When it was cold, I painted portraits inside a bar.” He filled lonely moments by reading. He attributes his ability to quickly consume information to a speed reading class his father took him to at age 9. To this day he reads a book a day. He prefers art related biographies, philosophy, science and trade journals. “When I want to explore a thought, I have a reference library of 14,000 books that will take me back 50,000 years in detail.” He also paints every night and is one of the fortunate few who need only a few hours of sleep.
In 1977 Benini leased a DC-9 and flew his 10,000 books, his paintings and a few personal effects to America. He landed in Gainesville, Florida, and met the love of his life, Lorraine Link, who had come to interview him while completing her master’s degree in communications and journalism at the University of Florida. They were married shortly thereafter and traveled the country together to attend Benini’s exhibition openings. They settled in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and were charmed by its similarities to the spa cities in northern Italy. Benini’s gallery was a 10,000 foot Victorian building that they restored according to National Historic Preservation guidelines. The annual “gallery walk” and film festival Lorraine organized there is in its 17th year.
On a visit to Texas in 1999, the Beninis toured a beautiful property and were immediately taken with the Hill Country views and a lovely limestone and cedar house atop Rattlesnake Mountain where they now live. Visit and you will see why LBJ chose this property as his hunting retreat. From the mountaintop the Beninis now enjoy their panoramic view by day and gaze at the stars by night. They named their ranch Le Stelle, “the stars.” Benini said, “(Finding this property) was as if all the glimpses of beauty we had found on our journeys had come together; and, best of all, I found that in the Texas state of mind, there are no limits.”
The Beninis thirty year marriage is a true partnership of love, mutual respect and blending of talents. Lorraine is Benini’s agent and administrative assistant and enjoys meeting their visitors as much as he does. She has equipped a special room for photographing his work and is highly skilled in computer design as you will see on the fabulous website she helped design, which is an art experience in itself. He stated, “…my fortune is to have found a soul mate.” She says Benini’s greatest characteristics are the timelessness of his works and his universality. His works appeal to worldwide collectors and Hill Country high school students alike. Lorraine says he does not teach, but is often asked to critique an artist’s work. She says that “the one driving force behind Benini is impeccability. Each piece is the very best he can make it.” Benini likes the permanence and brilliance of acrylics. His works are all hand painted, not air brushed. He sometimes patiently layers up to twenty coats of paint on his acrylic works. His paintings have a three dimensional impact achieved by his original technique. The canvases are stretched over flat aluminum cut into geometric shapes. Benini told me he often paints ten minutes, then reads ten minutes, then paints again, following this process for hours. When I asked, “Why ten minutes?” he answered “It takes ten minutes for the paint to dry.” While describing Benini’s three dimensional works, a September 2007 “Texas Highways” author states that “Benini’s roses and recent ribbon-like tangles appear to leap from the walls.”
Through the years Benini’s artwork has gone through many transitions. In the 1970’s he rendered nudes and island life in delicate colors. He also began painting what came to be known in the art world as “Superroses,” and he continues his rose series for 20 years. I was told, “If you do flowers they won’t take you seriously. I painted three roses on a 12 by 36 foot canvas, and they had to take me seriously.” He currently is working on two series, titled “Face of God” and “Courting Karos.”
When you visit the gallery, take time to also drive or walk all the ranch paths to view the wonderful variety of sculpture. Seven of the 70 works outside are Benini’s. Painting is clearly Benini’s true life’s work but he says that occasionally he can’t resist assembling a sculpture. “I found a quarry in Marble Falls that allowed me to wander into their ‘bone yard’ and acquire unusual shaped granite pieces. So the assemblages that I had always done on a small scale became 10 to 15 foot sculptures.” Lorraine took me on a golf cart tour of the grounds and it was a real surprise to pass Benini driving a bobcat and smoothing earth to prepare ground for a sculpture. She says that when they started their ranch project she didn’t know the difference between a tilt-a- crane and a bobcat. She quickly caught on to the necessary earth moving lingo when an 8000 pound sculpture arrived from Toronto by Korean sculptor Won Lee. Transporting and moving it were a real challenge, but after many phone calls she found the required equipment. The thought and care behind the placement of each piece is evident, as each one appears to be put in a perfect setting. Occasionally artists come and work for weeks at a time, creating site specific pieces. Some of the sculptures hang from trees and others are free standing. All are intriguing and thought provoking, like Loren Impson’s “Aspiration and Determination,” two enormous hands of cement and steel, one reaching skyward. Among other sculptors displaying their works are the local artist and physician Marshall Cunningham, who works mainly in steel and brass. UT fans will understand how my true orange blood heated up at the sight of Betty Hamlin Turner’s beautiful life-sized steel Longhorns. One of these will greet you at the ranch entrance.
The Beninis refer to their sculpture site and galleries as their “project,” which is ongoing. It is modeled on the European custom of creating a headquarters for an artist’s work which is a place to view art, enjoy it, learn from it and share ideas. He says, “Their (his visitors) interpretation is just as valid as mine.” Creating a sculpture site was inspired by their visits to the Noguchi and other outdoor museums. In the August edition of “Country Lifestyle”, Benini states, “Placing sculptures on the grounds in a nature setting..is a European way of living with your art, and these grounds just call for them. The pieces must be large scale and powerful enough to withstand the serious winds here.”
Some collectors follow Benini wherever he goes and it is this type of international recognition that allows him the freedom to paint as he pleases. Lorraine said, “We are not dealers. However, the works are for sale. Everything here is paid for by the sale of Benini’s paintings.” She adds that visitors are free to take photographs in the gallery and surrounding grounds. Art viewing, good conversation, entertainment and light refreshments at the bimonthly Arts Encounters are free to all. Musicians, artists and others speak or perform at these events. “This is his way of giving something back to the world.”
Come to ARTS Encounters at Beninis!
Enjoy music by John Arthur Martinez &
Meet artists Marshall Cunningham, Gary Bachers, Lotus McElfish
& James LePaso
Saturday, September 29 and Sunday, September 30
Programs begin at 1:30 p.m.
Everyone welcome free of charge.
The Benini Foundation Galleries and Sculpture Ranch
377 Shiloh Road
Johnson City, Texas 78636
10 to 6 daily; please call ahead
Update from past Daytrippin’articles: The ever popular
Spicewood Zipline closes for winter on Nov. 17, 2007
Cypress Valley Canopy Tours
Owner: Amy Beilharz 512-264-8880
Coming to Daytrippin’ in Oct. 2007:
Round Top Antique Show
Driving Directions: (App. 35 mi. from HSB)
Take 281 South to Johnson City. Turn rt. at Hwy. 290 & continue through Johnson City. Turn left on CR 204 (Flat Creek Rd.) Go 5.2 mi. to Shiloh Road. Turn rt. onto Shiloh Road. Cross over cattle guard & turn sharp left. Follow signs to Beninis.