“I’ll just keep in the background because too much talking can spoil the effect.” — John Bennett, July 2012
John Bennett tried to let his art do the talking.
In the above quote, the last interview of his life, the orchardist, beekeeper and artist spoke about his accomplishments in a way that can best be described as modestly proud.
Bennett died Jan. 1 at the age of 90. For three decades he grew pears, apples and cherries on his farm on Sunset Road, and for 28 years he drew and painted along with fellow artists in the life drawing group he helped found in 1979.
“It was a healthy group that grew just on its own vitality. That’s the part of history I’m most proud of,” Bennett said in his apartment at Brookside Manor.
“It started in a small way, of just people who were just dedicated.”
John Bennett would have turned 91 on Feb. 7.
A celebration of his life will be at 1 p.m. Sunday at Hood River Valley Adult Center.
He was the son of Ralph and Anne Bennett (owners of the Hood River News before World II).
He graduated from Hood River High School and attended first Oregon State University and then Lewis and Clark College, earning a degree in art. After two years studying math and science at OSU, he followed his muse and changed schools.
Out of high school, “I had a great interest in ship models, and when I came to graduate I had to make some choices so I had to take some tests, and it turned out my talents were either mathematical or artistic, so I started with a course in science for two years because I was supposedly . . . well, you get the picture. I decided after the second year it kind of went dry and I kept thinking that didn’t do anything for me.”
His daughter, Mary Ellen Bennett, said that when John was a boy he loved to hang out with all the printing equipment and he built a special machine that made the hulls of ship models, “a unique machine that John built and he would make the hulls and do all the fine detail work,” she said.
He went back to school at Lewis and Clark and finished up his art degree, and then returned.
The plan was to run the orchard, on Sunset Road near Rockford, for a few years and then sell it.
“Then I got diverted. The big two factors in my life were either mathematics or the art and so I came back and learned the orcharding,” Bennett said. He ran it for 25 years, raising a family while growing pears, applies and cherries, and keeping bees.
He maintained an interest in art along the way.
When asked, “Why life drawing as opposed to landscapes or other forms?” Bennett replied, “It’s basic art instruction. Composition is what most of us, the more advanced people, are drawn by. Weekend people are thinking about recreation and duplicating what they see, but serious artists are thinking about composition more.
“You’re dealing with feelings and communicating feelings, really, when you’re painting, and looking at each others’ paintings is a kind of coming to life, is really what it’s all about.
“There’s an element of competing … you criticize in your own mind and see other ways of looking at something.
“You see what gives you a charge and you discover your feelings in the more advanced approach, and mixing it up with other people. It’s self-discovery, really, in a group that way.”
Bennett and his fellow artists also sponsored public art programs, with visiting artists and speakers of other topics of interest; he remembered an archaeologist who spoke on relics.
Every Saturday morning for 28 years, the group met, first at the former Anderson Funeral Home (“We jokingly called it the embalming room,” he said) at State and Sixth streets (now Stoltz Winery and Every Threat Counts).
Later the group met at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and did so until it disbanded in 2007.
Bennett wrote in a 2010 letter to the editor, “One Saturday in April 1979, Joyce Bryerton hired a nude model and started a weekly life drawing group in a local funeral home.
“The group became a series over the years, managed by John Bennett, until a Saturday in May 2007, when John held the final meeting of the cooperative group in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.
“In the intervening years of operation (continuous except the summers) numerous artists participated in and used the resources of the expanding group.
“Trained artists as well as weekend painters came regularly from as far away as Portland and The Dalles to draw from the figure and share ideas.
“Joyce Bryerton is gone now, but eight large stained glass windows, which she built for the church, survive as a memorial.”
In 1984 money had been donated for stained glass windows on the south side of the St. Mark’s sanctuary.
Bennett suggested to a committee that stained glass artists be consulted to create a “unifying scheme” for the stained glass, which Bryerton would create.
Bryerton won the contract to design and build eight large stained glass windows. In the lrtter Bennett wrote last year, he said, “the windows are a fitting memorial for Joyce, since her death in 1996.
“The windows came fast, people wanted to be a part of it, it kept her busy. I give myself credit for just being at the right time, a little pressure at the right time so it really presented her with quite an achievement to put in the record book.
“Joyce gave it everything she had.”
“I retired from it about five years ago,” Bennett said last summer of the life drawing group. “I was just exhausted of it. Up until a couple of years ago, I did drawing in my spare time.
“Since its inception the group has provided an enriched work environment of drawing books, drawings of past participants, a positive atmosphere and friendly associations,” Bennett said in a 1996 article.
The life drawing group used artist benches made by several Hood River valley carpenters. “The benches remain a token of the vigor and success of the thing,” Bennett wrote in 2010.
In 2007, they were donated by his daughter and her husband, Keith, to Lane Community College art department.
“The legacy lives on,” Mary Ellen said.