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Published: Friday, 5/7/2004

Brooklyn artist Stephen Bennett's work focuses on faces

This painting, called "White Dreads," sells for $3,500. This painting, called "White Dreads," sells for $3,500.
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Big faces beaming with rainbow colors await live eyes at the Wolfe Gallery at Maumee Valley Country Day School.

An ideal show for children, many of Stephen Bennett's acrylic-on-canvas portraits are 16-by-20, 48-by-60, even a whopping 64-by-80 inches.

"Every face is like a landscape of grooves and channels," says Bennett, who lives in Brooklyn.

Most of his subjects in this exhibition, his fourth in Toledo since 1999, are aboriginal Australians, their hair a whirl of colors, their cheeks and chins punctuated by greens and purples.

A mix of anthropologist, social worker, and educator, Bennett, 43, studies and paints indigenous folk, hoping to create appreciation among people of various colors and cultures.

He has painted people in Tanzania, Panama, and Polynesia. And for three months last year, he taught portraiture to indigenous children at seven "Croc Festivals" career fairs in the Land Down Under.

"Teaching is a way for me to enter a group of aboriginal people and be understood," he says. It works with privileged children, too. Since his show opened last month, he has been instructing children at Maumee Valley Country Day School. "I really enjoy teaching kids and being a role model."

He earns his keep by painting commissioned portraits, sans the wild colors, for which he charges $3,000 to $10,000.

Included in this show are nearly 50 paintings, a few photographs, dozens of simple pictures by Bennett's Australian students, and small collections of primitive jewelry, ostrich eggs, boomerangs, bows, and books.

He begins by snapping a photograph or making a sketch of an individual. He notes light and environmental conditions, and general impressions. The painting comes later.

"We're all connected," he says. "If I'm going to paint someone, I need their help. So I do a type of prayer where I open myself up to allow this person to be painted by me, the conduit, and to do it as well as possible. I think I'm guided to do this"

He paints the goodness. "They're giving me their image and I'm selling it. So I try to make it as beautiful as I can."

And the wild hues?

"The first color I pick is a color that feels right. And I don't think about the colors. It just goes.

"After all the colors are on, then it becomes a big repair job. You have to work with the values of dark and light; balance cool and warm, and make it entertaining to look at, so it becomes a balanced, solid thing on the wall that's complete."

Why only faces, straight on?

"It's kind of like an Andy Warhol thing. I learned you must be consistent. Decide what you love to do and stick with it. And make enough of them to make a ripple."

Prices range from $250 for photographs, $650 for watercolors on paper, and up to $20,000 for paintings.

- TAHREE LANE

Stephen Bennett's show continues through May 18. The Wolfe Gallery is in the Smead Building at Maumee Valley Country Day School, 1715 S. Reynolds Rd. Weekday hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Information: 419-381-1313.



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