Aspen loses influential artist
April 27, 2007
ASPEN Tom Benton, a local artist whose images helped to define Aspen’s tempestuous political and social upheavals starting in the late 1960s, died around 7:30 a.m. Friday at St. Anthony’s North Hospital in Denver after a brief battle with cancer. He was 76.One of Aspen’s best-known local artists, Benton had a wide circle of friends, including Hunter S. Thompson, with whom Benton collaborated artistically and politically.When Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County in 1970, Benton turned out a poster that remains one of his most sought-after works – the double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button, co-created with Thompson and artist Paul Pascarella.And his most recent work has included a highly popular poster for the current holder of that same office, Sheriff Bob Braudis, close friend of both Benton and Thompson.”Tom, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the images of old Aspen, one of the reasons I’ve stayed here,” said photographer Bob Krueger, who has known the Bentons for decades.Born Thomas Whelan Benton in Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 16, 1930, he said often that he spent a part of his childhood in an orphanage there. By the time he was about 10 years old, according to his son, Brian Benton, he had relocated to an unincorporated area outside Los Angeles called La Crescenta.After graduating from high school in suburban Los Angeles, he attended Glendale Junior College for a short time before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in the late 1940s and shipping out to sea. He served aboard ship during the Korean War, but never saw direct fighting.
With his discharge from the Navy around 1953, and the GI Bill paying his tuition, he enrolled in the architecture school at the University of Southern California. He graduated with a degree and went to work for an architectural firm for a number of years. He met and married his first wife, Betty, and they had two children while living in California – Brian and Michelle.According to Brian Benton, he designed several buildings in Northern California that were built and can be seen today.But, Brian recalled, his father’s passion was to become a working artist, and following a visit on a ski trip, he decided Aspen was where he should be. In 1963, Brian Benton recalled, his father moved to Aspen on his own, bought a lot on Hyman Avenue for $3,000 and began building himself a studio and gallery at 521 E. Hyman Ave., the building that for years was O’Leary’s bar and later Zoe’s, and now is the home of the Guerilla Gallery. The family followed him the next year.While pursuing his artistic passions, his son remembered, he also continued to dabble in architecture, designing The Patio Building in the center of town as well as homes for local doctor Jack Crandall and movie star Jill St. John.But it was his silk-screening work that made him a local legend, as he began cranking out political posters, some for such nationally known figures as Hunter Thompson and U.S. Sen. George McGovern (D-South Dakota) in his 1972 presidential bid. He also began turning out The Aspen Wallposters, again in collaboration with Hunter Thompson, locally famous bits of history that carried political screeds from Thompson on one side and startling Benton images on the other.And along the way, he developed an ever broadening circle of friends, such as Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis and Woody Creek rancher George Stranahan.
“It was open house up there,” Stranahan recalled of Benton’s studio. “Tom’d be up there screening his prints, his kids’d be all around and everybody was welcome.”Speaking from New Orleans, where he was attending a celebration of the life of another late friend, CBS news man and former Woody Creek resident Ed Bradley, Braudis recalled that Benton was on the “oral examination board” convened by Pitkin County Sheriff Dick Kienast when Braudis first applied for a job with the sheriff’s office in 1976.”He asked me two questions,” Braudis remembered, “what I thought of burglary … and what I thought about marijuana.” Braudis responded that “burglary was a dangerous crime because it might turn violent if somebody was at home,” and that “marijuana should be legalized.””He told me, ‘Don’t ever let anyone burglarize my marijuana,'” Braudis continued, and Braudis got the job.Living the life of a struggling Aspen artist took a toll on Benton’s family affairs, starting with a divorce in 1977 that forced him to sell his gallery/studio as part of the settlement.He then embarked on life as a roaming artist, establishing himself in studios around Aspen and the upper valley, and remarrying twice, in the mid-1980s to the late Katie Smith, and in 1991 to Marci Griffin, who said their 16 anniversary is today.
Besides his posters, he would produce other forms of screened and painted art, including large, multipiece works that require considerable display space but have been prized by certain art collectors.By 1989, as he has said more than once, he was in need of a regular paycheck, and Braudis hired him as a jail deputy, where he worked full time, off and on, until 2003.Long-time jail supervisor Billy Tomb, who worked with Benton for years, called him “a great fellow, an icon of the town, a character in his own right” and a jailer who “wouldn’t take guff from anyone … a great, feisty old man.”But his love of art continued and, in the mid 1990s, he quit the jail and tried his hand at painting, a move he told The Aspen Times he had always wanted to make.A one-man show at the Barney Wycoff Gallery in Aspen was well received, but financial gains did not follow, and by 1996 he was back at work at the jail, where he worked until finally retiring in 2003.But, as he told Aspen Times arts editor Stewart Oksenhorn in a feature story Sept. 1, 1995, “The reward isn’t what you get at the end. It’s doing it. That’s the pain and that’s the pleasure. For my intellect, it takes every goddamn bit of energy I can muster.”He continue to produce prints, using a makeshift studio on Stranahan’s property and selling his works through the Woody Creek Art Studio, until he was diagnosed with advanced lymphoma about two months ago. He was hospitalized in early February and after a week at Aspen Valley Hospital was transferred to Denver.
His family had made plans this week to bring Benton back to Aspen once it became clear that treatments were not effective, and an ambulance sent to retrieve him was en route when he died, apparently of pneumonia related to the cancer, according to Tomb.Benton is survived by his children, Brian Benton and Michelle (Bremer) Benton; two grandchildren, Natalie and Emily Bremer; his wife, Marci; and uncounted friends and acquaintances.Benton’s remains were to be cremated in Denver and a memorial service in Aspen is planned at a date and place to be announced.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org