Photo by Will Lester
At the memorial service Saturday for Claremont painter Karl Benjamin, who died in July at age 86, it was recalled that he never picked up a brush until his 20s. He was a sixth-grade teacher in Bloomington, with no prior knowledge or interest in art, when his principal told him new state standards required 40 minutes per day of art instruction.
Speaker Mitzi Wells was in that 1949 class. She said Benjamin’s instructions were to experiment with colors and shapes: “No trees, no houses and no people.”
“Sound familiar?” Wells asked, drawing chuckles from the audience. (Benjamin’s paintings later followed the same credo.)
Students were told to fill each sheet of paper before they would be given the next.
“Even the toughest and meanest boys were silent during art period,” Wells remembered.
Not only was Benjamin inspired by his own students to take up art, going on to a celebrated career painting colors and shapes, but Wells’ daughter recently graduated from the Art Center in Pasadena.
In a comment sure to cheer the heart of any teachers in the room, Wells said: “You never know how many generations you’ll affect.”
I also wonder how many education bureaucrats would be cheered to hear that much-maligned state education standards turned a teacher into a renowned artist.