Carol Benson paints houses in her home. She paints them in her studio, which is also in her home. Although that might sound a bit convoluted, the Fort Worth artist makes large paintings of small Monopoly-simple houses in a house that also bears her creative stamp.
The Spanish Moderne structure is an anomaly in Mistletoe Heights -- even in the historic neighborhood known for its architectural variety, the boxy two-story with its white stucco facade, flat roof and small, heavily ornamented windows and glass blocks definitely stands out. The first day the "For Sale" sign went up in the front yard, Carol and her husband, Jack, made an offer on the house. That was 21 years ago, and they have been there ever since. Over time, it has grown to include Carol's large art studio and a new kitchen, both designed by Aledo-based architect Rick Wintersole. The studio and kitchen are contemporary, but they have been integrated seamlessly into the 65-year-old house.
The Bensons have worked with Wintersole on two occasions. He passed Jack's qualifying test on the studio addition.
"I've got two criteria," says Jack. "One, when you tell me it will be completed by a certain date, it will be, and two, if you tell me a price, that is what it will cost." The studio addition was fraught-free, so Wintersole was invited back three years ago to renovate the kitchen.
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The kitchen went from original-to-the-house, with white, scalloped-trim wood cabinets and an old Chambers stove, to a sleek space with a low sheen of reflective surfaces. The recycled-glass countertops have mirror chips embedded in them, and the peninsula almost seems to disappear. The original over-the-sink window was expanded to fill the entire end wall, flooding the kitchen with light and offering an all-encompassing view of the back yard. Many of the original cabinets and drawers were reused, even though they were a much darker wood than the new, light beech-colored woodwork. This eclectic mixing is the Bensons' style, where antique furniture and contemporary art seem quite suited to each other.
The studio addition has the look of a downtown loft, yet it, too, blends with the original house. The 800-square-foot room with attached bath has plenty of hidden storage and a small kitchenette. It can serve as either a party room or a guest room, but primarily it is Carol's studio and her three grandchildren's favorite place to visit.
To connect the studio to the main house, Wintersole removed a casement window in the living room and constructed a long, wide hallway that is flooded with natural light from two large areas of glass blocks. The blocks also afford privacy to the hallway space, as it stretches along the front of the house. Carol uses it as an ever-changing exhibition space for her art, and that of her friends and her grandchildren. The studio has tall ceilings, a concrete floor and a large window wall. These are all studio necessities, but they also lend an air of downtown edginess that the neighbors would never suspect.
Before her home studio was built, Carol had been working in an old downtown warehouse, Artspace111. This was long before it was the slick gallery it is today. Then, it was little more than a large, old warehouse with a warren of freezing-cold or sweltering-hot studios. What it lacked in amenities was made up in the camaraderie of the other artists who worked there, and she admits that she misses the interaction a great deal. "But you do better work when you are on your own," she says.
The spirit of her artist friends pervades her house -- their art is on every wall. She has more of their work on display than she does her own. She has been trading pieces for a long time, even with her architect. Wintersole made her a large work table; she painted a portrait of his son.
Carol is working on her house series in preparation for a September show at the Old Jail Art Center in Albany. She is always working on her house series. It is something she began long before she returned to Texas Christian University for her second master's degree, in 2002.
She began working on them in 1996, at a time when she was dealing with serious family matters. Her mother could no longer live on her own, and Carol, who is an only child, had to make difficult decisions.
Jim Malone, an artist friend, had given her a piece of project trash in the shape of a house, and a neighbor had given her a large sheet of tin that she cut into the shape of a simple house.
"Everything I did was about a house. I was getting rid of the house I grew up in -- I had to decide what to do with all the stuff. Everything was about houses. Everything I painted was houses. I did that for a year, and everything I did sold. I thought I wasn't going to do it anymore, but I'm still doing houses. Except now it's about staying, not the trauma of leaving. Now it's more about staying stable, being centered and focused, and not feeling guilty."
This is quite a change.
Her paintings, which look like oil on canvas, are more often wax applied to steel. The soft, malleable medium has an opacity that suggests the softness of a blanket, but underneath is the solid understructure.
The uncharacteristic materials were what attracted Bill and Pam Campbell to her work. "It was the incongruous materials with the mundane, it was very well thought out," says Bill of William Campbell Contemporary Art, where Carol's work has been sold for the past 12 years.
"She likes to build the props she draws and paints. She's a sculptor, and her drawings and paintings are honest to the realistic props she builds," Campbell says.
Each house is a geometric square with a triangular, pitched roof, and Carol makes models to use before she begins her painting. The house that looks like layers of cardboard tied with string is, indeed, layers of corrugated cardboard tied with butcher's string. The transparent house was sewn up on the sewing machine with clear vinyl. The corners show a bit of stress where the vinyl crumples, but that is faithfully recorded in the painting. The nature of the model's material shows up in the painting. A bold blue-and-white striped house was made from an old dress, and the fabric has an insubstantiality that contrasts nicely with the bold print. When it was on exhibit at a recent show, she put a small white picket fence around the house; all the vertical bars reiterated the imprisonment issues of home. She's contemplating whether to continue adding the pickets when it is displayed. Yes, she decides, if she can find some old, slightly decrepit ones.
Carol's little model homes are all of a similar size. The ones that proved to be successful paintings line the dining-room buffet, a little neighborhood of success; the ones that haven't proved their adaptability are still scattered about her studio. One made out of the Home section of the newspaper and a little furry model are still kicking about.
There are also bowllike artworks hanging with the houses. They look like wire nests, and hanging alongside the houses, they might as well be nests, as the home motif overrides all else. Although the bowl-slash-nest series started off as sketches -- Carol created the images using her grandchildren's Spider-Man crayons -- she makes them out of wire first, before embarking on painting them.
"There is always a mysterious quality about her work," says Dan Blagg, owner of Artspace111. "She's a good painter, and one of the worst things is to be too satisfied with your work. That is definitely not Carol's problem. She's self-deprecating to a point that she needs shoring up. She struggles a lot with being satisfied."
"She never thinks anything is good enough or quite finished," says Bill Campbell.
Already Carol is agonizing about the show in Albany -- eight months away.
She has taken a sander to one of her works on steel and removed all the wax. The freshly scraped house shape awaits its new face.
"I don't know what it is, but it just keeps going," says Carol.
"It's like Dennis Blagg doing one more Big Bend landscape or Billy Hassell doing one more bird. There is just something about doing it, just one more time, to get it right. You don't know what you are going to do next, but there will be a next and that is all you have to know."
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113. Twitter: @gailerobinson