Thomas Hart Benton and John Steinbeck

On Dec. 24, 1934, Thomas Hart Benton became the first artist to grace the cover of Time magazine. Seven days later, the Broadmoor Art Academy ceased to be as Boardman Robinson and the other leaders of our institution changed the name of the Academy to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

Robinson and Benton were friends from back east. The Time article focused on Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry as leaders of the Regionalism movement; for the Broadmoor Art Academy and Fine Arts Center, the trio was considered mentors to the art school.

In 1937, John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men and followed that up with The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which was illustrated by Benton.

Flash forward several decades … the Fine Arts Center’s Theatre Company is presenting Of Mice and Men (March 15-April 1). Scenic designer Chris Sheley, a fan of Benton, is working on backdrop ideas and finds out that the FAC owns Benton illustrations created in the 1930s—works that will be on display during Resilience.

“The closer I looked, the more connections surfaced, and the more excited I got,” said Sheley, winner of two Denver Post Ovation Awards for Best Scenic Design in Colorado.

“Interestingly, Benton and Steinbeck had many parallels throughout their lives,” he said. Both wanted their art to be accessible to the “common man,” with Benton eschewing the mainstream art world of the east to pursue life in Middle America and Steinbeck saying specifically that he wanted to write Of Mice and Men to be performed for “everyman” to experience.

In the early production meetings, the creative team talked at length about wanting to reinforce the “dream of George and Lennie” to have their own place with a few acres to work for just themselves.

“Immediately I thought of how Benton’s work always makes me feel a little romantic about rural, blue-collar life in America,” said Sheley. “Often his work seems dream-like with a sense of over-heightened color and shapes that really make me want to go there.

“Because of this, I created a world-beyond look where George and Lennie never seem to make it, though it’s almost within reach.

“I’ve used other artists as inspiration such as Monet, Seurat, and Piranesi. To finally bring one of my favorite artists into the fold is a great thrill. His color and shapes and line quality have always had a great influence on me. I just hope I can do his legacy proud.”

Originally published in the April – July 2012 edition of ArtsFocus
(Vol. 8, Issue 2) for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

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