The Newport Art Museum will recognize the Benson family’s three generations of contributions to American art and design at’s the Museum’s Beaux Arts Ball on Saturday, July 2, 2016. The gala honorees include master stone carvers John Benson and Nicholas Benson; noted artists Richard Benson, Christopher Benson, Oliver Benson and Samuel Benson; and the late artistic craftsmen Thomas Benson and John Howard Benson and Esther Fisher Benson.
This year’s Beaux Arts Ball is being organized by co-chairs Kristen Coates, Elizabeth Ann Kahane and Molly de Ramel. Guests will gather under a tent for dinner, drinks, and a silent auction, with music by the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra. The festive event will be held on the grounds of the Newport Art Museum located at 76 Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island. Proceeds will support the Museum’s extensive arts programming and community outreach.
The work of the Benson family has been featured on the CBS Sunday Morning Show and documented in the films Cutting a Quill and Final Marks. Nicholas Benson was featured in the Masters of the Building Arts program of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and Pace Matters TED Talk.
John Benson says, “Our family is truly honored by this significant recognition. The Newport Art Museum continues to expose people to the simplicity and clarity of authentic artistic pursuits. The rewards of giving yourself to life in the arts are huge. There is the satisfaction of knowing that your heart and soul go into creating physical objects that others can appreciate beyond your own lifetime.”
He adds, “We are ordinary people. We share a passion for recognizing well-made objects. Our family shared a confluence of genetic and behavioral influences, which bred in us a love of the artistic life. It is a story about a family’s sensitivity to art and a community’s support. In truth it is a story of good luck and hard work.”
Norah Diedrich, the Museum’s Executive Director, notes, “Since its inception in 1912, the focus of the Newport Art Museum and Art Association has been to provide a welcoming and engaging place in which to make, exhibit and discuss art. For many, their Museum experiences have been transformative, evidenced by artistic achievements, creative breakthroughs and self-discovery.” She continues, “At this summer’s Beaux Arts Ball we will celebrate a family who epitomizes the creative spirit embraced and cultivated at the Museum – the Benson family of artists. They have been an important part of the fabric of our Museum and our creative community, and it is a great honor to celebrate their many accomplishments.”
Newport Art Museum’s Board President, Sandra Craig, remarks, “Creativity in families likely occurs when a constellation of factors – genetic and environmental – come together in the right way and at the right moment. Our Museum singularly understands nurturing individual creativity, and hence celebrates the synergy of creative families. A glance at the list of our honored artist families – including the Grosvenors, Manices, Saarinens, and Wrights – bears witness to this.” She continues, “We are thrilled to honor the Benson family of artists. Their artistic oeuvre perfectly exemplifies what happens when those factors, plus originality and non-linear thinking – enlivened by a passion for one’s work and a willingness to take risks – beautifully interact.”
Founded in 1912 as the Newport Art Association, the Newport Art Museum is located at 76 Bellevue Avenue in Newport, RI. The Museum’s galleries feature artworks from its permanent collection in addition to showcasing temporary exhibitions of Rhode Island and the region’s most prominent contemporary artists. The Museum operates galleries in the circa 1864 John N. A. Griswold House, a National Historic Landmark that is the premier Stick Style building designed by Richard Morris Hunt as well as in the Cushing Gallery, built in 1920. The Newport Art Museum educates and inspires a diverse audience by collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting historic and contemporary visual arts of the highest quality with an emphasis on the rich heritage of the Newport region, and integrates appreciation for the arts and art-making into all its programs.
For more than 100 years, the Museum has served Rhode Island and regional communities as a cultural gathering place with high-quality exhibitions and programming, and dedication to inclusiveness and individual growth and learning. The Newport Art Museum is one of only 6% of American museums to be fully accredited by the American Association of Museums.
The Newport Art Museum’s collections and exhibitions reflect Rhode Island’s rich cultural heritage and lively contemporary art scene. The Museum’s Minnie and Jimmy Coleman Center for Creative Studies encourages people of all ages and abilities to explore their creativity through art classes, camps, workshops and other educational programming. The Museum teaches art through extensive outreach programs in public schools, social service agencies and private institutions throughout Rhode Island. The Museum also offers concerts, live theatre, art and book talks, family programming and special events throughout the year. For more information visit www.newportartmuseum.org.
The Benson Family:
Three Generations of Newport-Based Artists and Craftsmen
The Benson family acquired the John Stevens Shop in the 1920s. Established on Thames Street in Newport, Rhode Island in 1705, the John Stevens Shop is recognized as one of the longest continuously-running trade businesses in the United States. For more than three centuries, highly skilled stone carvers have produced meticulously hand-carved headstones and designed and inscribed calligraphy for landmark buildings, war monuments and presidential memorials.
A succession of three generations of Bensons have completed inscriptional projects for renowned institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, the Frick Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Washington National Cathedral, the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Smith College, Brown, Yale and Harvard universities.
John Howard Benson was born in 1901. In high school Howard attended classes at the Newport Art Association and taught workshops there. In 1927 he bought the John Stevens Shop, revived it, and ran it for three decades. That same year he initiated the Art Association of Newport’s first print studio and taught in the studio for many years. He also introduced the area of fine crafts as part of the Art Association’s exhibition schedule. He was a noted graphic artist, calligrapher, stone carver, author, and educator at the Rhode Island School of Design. He studied in the 20’s at the National Academy of Design, and the Art Students League and was recognized as America’s best designer of carved stone lettering and one of the foremost calligraphers in the United States. Howard was also very involved in the community of Newport. Furthermore, he was responsible for bringing attention to the need to preserve Newport’s colonial houses to Katherine Warren, who subsequently founded the Newport Preservation Society. He was awarded the Craftsmanship Medal of the American Institute of Architects and numerous honorary degrees. With Arthur Graham Carey, he was the author of The Elements of Lettering. Benson and Carey’s essay, The General Problem is included in the anthology Every Man an Artist, edited by Brian Keeble. Benson also translated and rewrote the Renaissance handwriting manual La Operina di Ludovico Vicentino, first printed in 1522.
Esther Fisher Smith Benson was born in 1908. She attended Wellesley College, majoring in Music. In 1934 she married Howard Benson. Fisher raised her three boys, Thomas, Richard and John. She cared for her husband and supplied the backbone of their sons’ philosophical education. After her husband’s death in 1956 she took on the management of the John Stevens Shop and ran it for twelve years. She oversaw Shop production and learned the essentials of low relief carving. From 1961 she worked with her son John until he took over the business. She lectured on the subject of her husband’s career in New York and Rhode Island.
Today, Howard and Fisher Benson’s son John and his son Nicholas Benson are nationally known for their artistic craft , one which took its current shape long ago in Imperial Rome. Their artistry distinguishes monuments in Washington, D.C. including the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the World War II Memorial and the John F. Kennedy Memorial. The Bensons also collaborated on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, The Poet’s Corner in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and Queen Anne Square in Newport, Rhode Island.
John E. Benson, born in 1939, is a stone carver, sculptor and typeface designer. He began working with his father, Howard Benson, in 1955 at age 15. He studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design, spent his senior year in Rome, and upon graduation returned to the family shop to work full time as a stone carver. In 1964 he was commissioned to design and carve inscriptions for the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. He has also carved gravestones for Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman and George Balanchine. He designed and executed exterior and interior inscriptions for the Prudential Center and Boston Public Library in Boston; the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas; the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Center in Chicago; and the Armand Hammer Museum of Art in Los Angeles John Benson’s lettering also graces the Vietnam Memorial and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Federal Courthouse in Boston. Since his retirement in 1993, he has been working in his Newport, Rhode Island studio creating portrait and figurative work in clay and bronze. He is currently writing a book about the Benson legacy in art, sculpture, stone carving, photography, printing, and preservation.
Richard Benson is a photographer and printer born in 1943, the son of John Howard and Esther Fisher Benson. He served as the Dean of the Yale School of Art from 1996 to 2006, and has taught photography at Yale University since 1979. He was a Guggenheim Fellow, National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and a MacArthur Fellow. In 1973 Richard co-authored Lay This Laurel (Eakins Press) with Lincoln Kirstein and in 1997 co-authored A Maritime Album (The Mariners Museum, Newport News, Virginia) with John Szarkowski. He made the film separations and also printed the plates for Photographs from the Collection of the Gilman Paper Company, published by the White Oak Press in 1985. In 2001 he authored A Yale Album (Yale University Press) and in 2008 he wrote The Printed Picture (Museum of Modern Art). His work is many prominent collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as the Yale University Art Gallery and the Newport Art Museum. His work will be the subject of a forthcoming solo exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Thomas Benson, the eldest son of Howard and Fisher Benson, was born in 1936 and died in 1987. After studying creative writing at Marlborough College, he finished his degree at Providence College. Some years later he earned a degree in Sculpture at RISD. During his two-year service with the U.S. Navy in Japan, he traveled several times to India where he collected antiques and studied Indian culture. Returning to Newport, in 1963 he revived his interest in historic preservation and was co-founder of “Operation Clapboard” which bought neglected 18th century houses and found new owners to restore them. His work was a pivotal influence on Doris Duke’s founding of the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1968. Thomas ran an antiques business at his shop on Elm Street for several years, specializing in 18th century lighting fixtures. He was a founding director of the Museum of Yachting, which is now incorporated in IYRS. Late in life he taught an art course to high-risk prisoners at the R. I. Adult Correctional Facility.
Nicholas Benson is a stone carver and letterer born in 1964. Continuing the family tradition, Nicholas began working at the John Stevens Shop at age 15 as an apprentice under his father, John. By age 18, he was carving commissioned work from his father’s designs. He attended the State University of New York at Purchase in 1986, where he studied drawing and design. In 1987, he completed an intensive year of study in Basel, Switzerland at the acclaimed Schule für Gestaltung (The Basel School of Design). Upon his father’s retirement in 1993, Nicholas became the owner and creative director of the John Stevens Shop. Nicholas Benson is recipient of the 2007 NEA National Heritage Fellowship and the 2010 MacArthur Fellowship.
Christopher Benson is a painter who was born in 1961. He is the son of John Benson. He earned a BFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design. He was a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellow. His paintings are in many collections, including the Newport Art Museum, MoMA in New York City; The Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island; The Rhode Island School of Design Special Collections Library in Providence, Rhode Island; and School of Aeronautics and Aviation, Stanford University in Stanford, California. His paintings will be the subject of a solo exhibition at the Newport Art Museum’s Cushing Gallery in the fall of 2017.
Oliver Benson is a painter born in 1968. He is the son of the late Thomas Benson. He studied at The University of Michigan and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He also spent three months of intensive study with Pema Wangyal, a master of Tibetan Thangka painting. Longer periods of study took place with Drajan Dupor, a master in the Byzantine style of Iconography. Anthony Ryder, a master in painting from life in the Beaux Arts tradition provided further concentrated study. Benson has exhibited his paintings in Pennsylvania, Oregon, California, Wisconsin and New Mexico.
Samuel Benson was born in 1970. He is also the son of the late Thomas Benson. A metal sculptor, graffiti and cartoon artist he studied at the University of New Mexico earning a degree in fine art. In addition to making sculpture he worked as an architectural metalworker for several buildings in the area. He worked as a graffitist in Recifi, Brazil developing a style that translated into his black and white, graphic narratives, which he produced in New Mexico.