Jacksonville honors artist Eugene Bennett

The walls inside artist Eugene Bennett's home studio in Jacksonville are covered with colorful collections that represent six decades of work.

Track lighting illuminates the patina on the siding of the circa 1850s brewery Bennett rehabilitated in the early 1960s. Britt Festivals and Taste of Ashland posters reside alongside his many collages, oils, drawings, photographs, sculpture and assemblages.

Long regarded as the foremost artist in Southern Oregon, Bennett has seen his work shown at the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the San Francisco Museum of Art and in Alba, Italy.

"Strangely enough, I always thought I could make a living with my art," Bennett said, with a smile. "I had shows all over."

Bennett, 86, has influenced generations of children through private instruction and as an artist and teacher for the Medford School District's Artists in Education program. Today he and others fund a Eugene Bennett Art Scholarship for Jackson County students through the Oregon Community Foundation, said Cristina Sanz, the foundation's Southern Oregon regional director.

"Gene really wants to focus on our local kids," Sanz said.

The arts scholarship was created about six years ago. To date, 20 local students have received tuition awards to attend various colleges throughout the United States, she said.

"It's a joy to give and Gene really sets that example," said Sanz.

Bennett and a committee of local artists and business people review student artwork from area high schools and determine scholarship finalists. Bennett always participates in the question and answer period that helps narrow the field, she said.

Born and raised in Central Point, Bennett credits a former Washington Elementary School teacher with being his first art mentor.

"I had a wonderful teacher, Alice Cromar," said Bennett. "She really encouraged me."

After serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II, he was accepted as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947, and used his G.I. Bill to pay for tuition.

"I think that's why, in part, he wants to give back through this scholarship," said Sanz.

He returned to Oregon in 1958 and became a founding member of the Rogue Gallery & Art Center, in 1960, along with Betty Allen, Robert Bosworth and Jack Teeters.

"I knew about all the stories of poor artists living up in the attic," he said. "I knew what the problems could be. But I decided I could live with that."

In 2001 Bennett was a featured artist on the television show Oregon Art Beat. The following year Bennett was honored with the Governor's Arts Award for work that has "significantly contributed to the growth and development of Oregon's cultural life."

A feature-length independent film, "Eugene Bennett: Portrait of an Artist," created by filmmaker William Donker and artist Holly Johnson, premiered at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in 2002.

In the 1990s Bennett was stricken with a rare disorder called benign essential blepharospasm, a type of involuntary spasm that makes it impossible to keep one's eyes open. There is no cure, he said.

Bennett still paints, but not as often.

"I'm not producing much," he said.

In 2008, he suffered a stroke and turned in his car keys. The hardest part of his decision was ending his drives into the country to paint or take photographs to be used as compositional reference in his studio work, Bennett said.

"I used to get in the car and pull off the side of the road," he said. "I like to be out in it."

Age and illness have affected his eyesight and his stamina, but not his sense of humor.

"I decided it would be better if I didn't drive anymore," Bennett said. "My neighbors were so happy to hear that."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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