Steven Bennett offers students at Maumee Valley Country Day School art from a different perspective
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Artist Stephen Bennett is used to exotic places, living as he has in such far-flung locales as Sarawak and Bali in Indonesia, the Trobriand Islands of New Guinea, and Malaysia, Thailand, and Morocco.
This month, the New Yorker has had another change of scenery.
He has been the artist in residence at Maumee Valley Country Day School, where his exhibit, Stephen Bennett: Southeast Asia and Back, has been on display at the school's Wolfe Gallery.
Mr. Bennett is a portrait artist who has found an unusual niche.
He'll travel to an archipelago of coral atolls off the coast of New Guinea, say, and there, in a subsistence settlement in a tropical rain forest, paint the faces of people he encounters.
In August of next year, Mr. Bennett's portraits will be on display in the visitor's lobby at the U.N. headquarters in New York, in an exhibit called Face to Face: Uniting Humanity.
This exhibit will correspond with the issue by the United Nations of 18 stamps bearing faces from his portraits. Such stamps, issued by the U.N.'s Postal Administration, cannot be used outside U.N. offices and are bought mostly by collectors and tourists.
The 2009 Indigenous Peoples stamp series will come out in New York, Austria, and Switzerland.
"There is nothing more interesting to me than a new face," Mr. Bennett, 47, said. "I look for subjects I can feel a connection with. This can take a long time, and then the person has to be willing to pose for you."
In his portraits, he said, "I want to express what it's like to be in that country. I'm a kind of an anthropological artist."
His large-scale portraits, done in acrylic, are stunning in their clarity and color, like high-definition television to the 10th power. He works from photographs of his subjects, and uses paints he makes himself from pigments.
"He attempts to make the iconic picture that brings up the entire culture," observed Gary Boehm, Maumee Valley's headmaster. "His portraits have that halo effect."
Mr. Bennett, for his part, said getting to know his subjects has given him a deep appreciation of non-Western "primitive" cultures. "These people, I believe, really have a lot more sophistication than we do. They live with nature without consuming it," he explained.
At Maumee Valley, Mr. Bennett has been giving art classes and talking to the students about life and living, Mr. Boehm said.
"He has done three assemblies for our kids. His message is such a powerful one," the headmaster said.
Mr. Boehm said Mr. Bennett recounted to the students how as a commercial artist he was secure and well-paid, but unfulfilled.
"He talked about how important it was to have a vision and make plans. He said he spent a lot of time praying and meditating on what he wanted to do," Mr. Boehm said.
"What would it be like to travel around the world and meet these indigenous people? Then he said the amazing thing he discovered was how helpful people will be if you ask them for help," the headmaster recounted. "You'd be surprised what people will do for you if you ask. He's a different kind of guy from the people they normally come into contact with."
Mr. Bennett said his large portraits have sold for $25,000. He also does private work to pay the bills. His private subjects have included Tom Brokaw, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Iman. This is his fourth stint as painter in residence at Maumee Valley.
The public is welcome to visit the free exhibit, which runs through Oct. 31, Mr. Boehm said. The Wolfe Gallery is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The school is at 1715 South Reynolds Rd. in Toledo. For more information, call 419-381-1313.
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