Texas Talent: Jerry Bennett

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Photos by Libby Rogers

Jerry Bennett doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing his career in business. Thankfully, he does spend a lot of time talking about his art—or, more accurately, his diverse artistic endeavors. These endeavors include painting, music, and wood sculpture, the latter of which has been his primary passion since 2001, when his wife Peggy signed them up for a woodturning class. Her insistence benefited Jerry, as well as art lovers everywhere. Bennett has produced many wood sculptures over the years, which are in private collections and have been on display at major museums, art magazines and, beginning April 14, at the Wynne Home Arts Center in Huntsville, Texas.

Where did you grow up?

I was raised in Oklahoma City, but I got here as quick as I could! Work brought me here. Most of my early business career was in the tower design and manufacturing business. This involved a lot of engineering, a big benefit in making the art I do today. Most of my work requires a supporting structure to make it appear delicate, and the ability to design a steel structure has worked well for me. Art was a part of my life from the beginning. I started playing music and creating art about the same time, around age nine, and I never quit. At one point I built a commercial recording studio in Friendswood, Texas and operated it in the 1990s.

When you were in the tower business, did you create art?

Yes, but mostly music, along with doing some painting and iron sculpture. I didn’t get involved with wood until 2001. Peggy signed us up for a woodworking class. My response was, “I’m not the least bit interested in wood. I’m never going to do wood.” She signed us up anyway and said, “Relax, it’ll be fun.”

Judging from the results, that was a good call.

That’s correct. I got hooked. I discovered skilled wood artists were creating things you couldn’t imagine wood could do. I saw people use the lathe and cut the wood, then reassemble it into a completely different product—a work of art. It was an epiphany.

When I first saw a photo of your works, I thought it was glass.

I was inspired by glass. I saw some glass art on the back of an art magazine. The piece was done by an artist named Randy Strong. Turns out he was a diver, and he would go to exotic places, photograph what he saw, then recreate it in glass. I thought to myself, “I want to do what he does, except I want to do it in wood.” The goal was to do works in wood that have the fluidity of glass. Interestingly, I was exhibiting one of my larger sculptures at a show in Chicago, and Strong stopped by the gallery booth I was in. He said, “Wow, that looks like glass!” I responded, “I know, and you are responsible for this!” We became friends.

In addition to evoking glass, your work seems to capture many musical motifs.

We all react emotionally to music. As a musician, I have had the opportunity to play in many venues to different audiences and witness their reactions to a performance. When I create a sculpture, I want others to have an emotional experience to my art just as they do to music.

What instrument do you play?

Mostly guitar. I can play lots of different instruments, but my primary instrument is the guitar.

In the midst of this discussion, Bennett puts on a recording. A man with a pleasant, Ricky-Nelson-like voice sings, while four or five instruments provide support. Bennett is the singer, and he is also the musician on the instruments. He performed each, laying down a different track in his Friendswood recording studio for the instruments and the voice. He’s recorded country, gospel, rock, and, as he puts it, “even rap.”

Did you sell your music?

I do the music for fun. I have about a hundred recordings of my music, some written by other songwriters, some I write myself. Music is a part of my art education. Several years ago on Bourbon Street, I stepped into a musical wonderland of totally improvisational, unscripted, emotional sounds. Those super-talented souls made a direct connection between their psyche and the instruments they were playing. The audience, including me, was swept right along. My rudimentary efforts at playing the guitar would never be the same, nor would my concept of music. This experience inspired “Opening Act.” My work is an attempt to capture some of the essence of that moment.

In addition to music, you’ve also painted.

Yes. Here’s an example of an early piece I did (he gestures to a painting of a young African-American girl). I painted it several years after the church bombing in Birmingham, when racists blew up a black church, killing four young girls. The name of the piece is, “Why Do You Hate Me?” A little girl like this—it’s a powerful question to ask. So I painted that as a result of reading about this senseless murder.

How long did you paint?

Well, my painting was pushed out a bit by music, but I still do paint occasionally. With a job and a family, there was a limit to my extra time, and the painting gave way to music which, to some extent, gave way to woodwork.

Your woodwork shows great complexity, particularly in some pieces. How do you approach such complex works?

I draw in 3-D, with the actual materials, instead of putting it on paper. When I get something I like, I go about making it. I’ll begin cutting the wood, and sometimes the wood ends up in the burn pile. Sometimes it’s experimental, to see what look it has. And I go from there, sometimes piecing the wood together, like a puzzle, literally with hundreds of pieces that are each cut, shaped, and assembled to achieve the desired form.

Do you use these experimental pieces as maquettes and then formalize them?

Nothing is off the table. If it works out, I’ll use it. Sometimes I go back and think, “Well, that’s cool. I’m going to scale it up or down.” Or sometimes I see that a variation on the original is in order, and I go back and carry out the variation.

Can you explain the process for those of us who aren’t woodworkers or artists?

I may begin with what I call a “think piece.” I’ll go to Home Depot and buy 10 to 12 pieces of poplar. I’ll cut small segments at the correct angles and glue layers that are turned on the lathe to the appropriate diameters. They are then tapered and assembled to the final shape. After assembly, carving the final shaping takes place. But for pieces that aren’t a “think piece,” I might use mahogany, ebony, or another type of wood.

What’s the most difficult aspect of creating a piece?

Actually, once you have the process down, the hardest part is the design and what it’s going to be.

When did you sell your first wood piece?

My first serious wood piece was probably sold in 2002. At first, I was interested in exploring the medium, and didn’t concern myself with sales. I just wanted to explore and see what could be done with wood. I eventually ended up with representation by a Los Angeles gallery for several years. Now, I mostly sell direct.

How many pieces of wood art have you created?

I’ve created about ten really large-size pieces and quite a number of small ones.

How long will a large piece take you?

About three months or so.

That seems a short period of time for an elaborate piece.

It’s knowing what you want. It’s indecision that causes delay.

What’s your favorite piece?

The next one I do. I learn something more each time. It’s like asking a race-car driver, “Which curve is your favorite?” You want to keep moving forward, being productive.

Speaking of productivity, when do you work?

I work every day, but I only commit to 15 minutes a day, which most always turns into hours. You have to commit to the work. Even if you commit to only 15 minutes, just getting into the studio helps to motivate you, and you end up staying. The discipline is in just showing up.

Many people know the names of famous painters, but who are a few wood artists everyone should know or explore?

One is J. Paul Fennell (www.jpaulfennell.com). He specializes in woodturning and carving. His work is very interesting. Another is Binh Pho (www.binhpho.com), who has an interesting story—so interesting, in fact, PBS recently did a special on him. He was one of the ones on our side during the Vietnam War, and he got left behind. He was actually on the embassy building when the helicopter took off, and many people—including him—were left. The Communist government put him in prison, but he ended up making it to the United States, and he is very influential in the woodturning community. He is the most generous man I have ever met.

Woodturning is becoming a more popular form of art. Why do you think that is?

The level of creativity and skill among woodturners has increased tremendously over the years. We’ve done shows all over the country, and there’s a real demand for this type of art. People more and more want to relate to the art they see. A pile of cement blocks on the floor doesn’t stir the imagination much.

Are you referring to abstract art?

I appreciate all sorts of art, and people do like abstract art, as do I. Museums realize they need foot traffic, and they are saying, “Let’s show art people want to see.” So things are swinging back to an emphasis on art with a craft basis. The art world goes in cycles.

Is there anything you’d like to tell me that I haven’t asked about?

Art is an aspect of life in which everyone can participate. It doesn’t have to be just certain people. Anyone can give it a try.

Also…if your wife suggests a class, take it.

The Wynne Home Arts Center’s exhibit on Jerry Bennett’s work will open on Saturday, April 14, with a reception from 3:00pm-5:00pm.

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