The editors recently visited artist Benny Collins at his home in Uptown New Orleans. Erin McNutt originally met Benny when their daughters attended the same school. Before learning of his occupation, she sensed he was an artist based on the way he carries himself. Benny just has that look about him.
New Orleans is a city literally overflowing with creative people from everywhere who’ve lead extraordinary lives. Benny is a worthy representative of that abundance.
Erin: So tell us something about yourself.
Benny: I was born and raised in Oklahoma and stayed there until I got out of high school. Then I went to Utah to go to Brigham Young University on a wrestling scholarship. But I quit when I found out that it wasn’t for me, because I wanted to be an artist.
Then I went to school at Instituto de Allende in San Miguel de Allende Mexico. I got in my car and drove down there (my girlfriend was in school down there) and stayed there for a while. I did that as long as I could do it and came back to Tulsa, OK and got a BFA in Painting. But I wanted to make sculpture.
When I got into the Sculpture Department at the University of Tulsa I really liked the professor at first, but he came on real strong to me. He was sort of combative, critical, almost threatening. I was like, “Oh dear! What’s wrong with this guy? He’s going to beat me up or something.” It was weird. So I talked to the painter there, who was Carl Coker. And he said, “ Why don’t you just major in painting and do sculpture too?
Erin: I’ve noticed your paintings are outnumbered by sculptures.
Benny: I have them all over the yard. There are still some at the last house where we used to live. We moved around and don’t have enough room and so things are scattered. But (my sculptures) don’t do well outside in New Orleans. They get covered in mold and stuff like that. So you have to clean them a lot. They are made out of marble, limestone, and granite, so nothing can hurt them really.
Erin: What led you from amateur artist to professional?
Benny: Just confidence I think. I mean I went to art school and got a BFA even though my teachers said you ought to get an Education degree so you can be a certified art teacher. And I thought, “No, I’m just going to be an artist.” I just didn’t want to go that route and it didn’t seem to matter too much until I started having kids. And then you need lot of money. You need steady income. You can’t just do whatever you want. But I never really made it just totally on art sales alone.
I had tried to get into galleries with my painting and they were just “Ho-Hum” about it. And then I started sculpting stone at a Community College in California. A sculptor named Paul Lenard noticed my first piece. He’s a Sculpture Professor at the University of Santa Barbara.
After that several pieces I made right away were shown. Galleries just wanted them. When I moved to Santa Fe, the first gallery I walked into took my work right away. And I was getting calls before I got home that they had sold my work. So it made me realize that I should probably stick with sculpture as my thing.
Painting is harder for me. I’ll want to pull my hair out painting sometimes. And sculpture slows me down. I can control it. There wasn’t too much room for mistakes really because I could just keep going. I never really had to think about what I was going to do. It’s like making a sandwich.
Then we moved to New Orleans and I went down to see Cole Pratt because somebody told me that they knew him and he was a good guy. He was honest. Plus I liked the work in his gallery. And he took my work, showed it, and sold it right away.
Then we started having children and it was harder to keep up. Cole Pratt liked new work and I just couldn’t keep up with it. He wanted work all of the time. Then one day I went to go see him at the gallery about some pieces and he died of a heart attack two days later sitting out in front of the gallery.
He was pretty good about payment too. If he sold something, he would write you a check no problem. And he wouldn’t discount the work either. He even asked more than I normally would have. But the difference between New Orleans and Santa Fe is that Santa Fe has bigger art sales. So he would say, “We can’t compete with that type of market. And I sell art a lot, but not a whole bunch of one person’s work.” And only so many people are collecting art here in New Orleans. Once they get a piece or two they are good.
Erin: Do you think that there is a saturation of artists here?
Benny: No, it’s just that Santa Fe started out as an art destination. Mainly with Georgia O’Keefe and the other artists. So they created that from pretty much zero. But, the art market there started really growing in the 1960a and 1970s.
When I went out there, I was mainly doing painting at that time. And I worked as a bartender to do whatever I had to do to get money. It was too small for me. I wanted to go to Los Angeles. I should have stayed there. A lot of people I knew that stayed there did real well. When I came back they had their own galleries.
I see New Orleans as a future art destination. Not just a place to get drunk on Bourbon St. There is more to this place. There are amazing musicians and artists coming here all of the time. We can create a regional art scene and make it unique. The same way New York did.
A lot of New York artists like Warhol and Rauschenberg had their own galleries because they couldn’t get into a gallery. I don’t think you should depend on a gallery to decide what you do. I had a piece one time that was kind of weird for me. It was a very primitive piece and the gallery owner loved it and sold it. Then I showed him another piece that I had done and he didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Afterwards I brought the piece to Cole Pratt and he loved it and sold it right away.
Erin: In which genres do you work?
Benny: More modern work. I had never been to a museum as a child. When I was older we went to the Gilcrease Museum, which is a bunch of cowboy art and I thought it was cool and interesting. I drew a lot of horses and Indians when I was younger, but I didn’t want to be a Native American artist. I’m too far removed because I’m only 1/16 Cherokee and Pawnee. Our family was in Oklahoma when it was Indian Territory. My great grandfather was the first doctor in Indian Territory.
So I didn’t really know which way I was going to go. In school I started learning about European art. I loved Modern art and some of the Modern sculptors. I liked Brancusi, Noguchi, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore. But I couldn’t emulate them. I have to try to make it new.
I like Surrealism. I think my style is sort of Surrealist too. I always thought that things weren’t planned. Artists don’t always plan; instead they just let it happen. I just use my subconscious.
Erin: So you are organic with your process? That’s not always easy for an artist.
Benny: My wife was saying, “Benny, you paint over your paintings so many times? Don’t do that! I loved that painting and it’s gone!” I have junk all over the house!
Erin: Have you ever gone back to a dormant work?
Benny: I have pulled out things that have been sitting around for ten years and started painting on them again. I know that other artists do that too. We were just in Barcelona at the Joan Miro Museum. There was an elaborate drawing that he began when he was 17, but didn’t finish until he was 80 years old when he had a burst of inspiration. It had a lot of power because you got to see his evolution.
Erin: What do you feel makes your art process unique?
Benny: The majority of stone that I carve is usually begins as a giant rock. It is not manufactured. You have a shape that you have to deal with. You can’t force a shape in it. So you have to look at the rock. It’s like Michelangelo once said; “I see the figure in the rock.” I look and stare at a rock and I usually see what’s in there. I draw it out with a piece of charcoal and I go for it. Sometimes it will make itself. Its economizing too because sometimes you will have a giant rock and carve it down to something tiny. But I always, pretty much, leave most of the rock there.
For example, the marble figure down in the yard was just a column that came from a place in New Mexico where they have these giant diamond saws to cut up the rock. Some of the rocks just fall on the ground and you can buy them. I try to use the whole stone.
Erin: Do you have a favorite stone for carving? How about wood?
Benny: I do like wood. People tend to put it in another category for some weird reason. But I like marble, limestone, and soapstone. Soapstone is wonderful to carve. It has lots of good qualities. Soapstone can take really intense heat and it’s impervious to water. For carving it’s wonderful.
Erin: What about alabaster?
Benny: I love alabaster too! I’ve done some pretty big pieces in alabaster. I did a big piece that Cole sold, but it had to go inside. It will wear outside. They last forever inside. It really makes sculpture “Sculpture!”
Erin: Did you always have an interest in Geology?
Benny: I kind of just learned it. I would go out into the desert in California and get a lot of the alabaster. There are big chunks out there. So one thing you have to do is carry a really nice feldspar or jasper stone. Then you go up to a rock and hit it with the stone. If it makes a dull thud you know that it has some faults in it. But a nice rock makes a ping. It has a ring like a bell. Alabaster really rings.
I remember once that a friend gave me this rock that had this sort of purple and red in it, which was really unusual. And I envisioned this weird bird flying in it. So I carved that and took it to the gallery and they sold it right away. So the gallery asked if I would make them another one.
And I said, “Another one! What are you even talking about?”
And they said that they had another guy that wanted it, but they had already sold the one I had made. They needed another one for him. So I told them I would call my friend to see if I could get another stone like the first one.
So I called up my friend and said, “ Hey Kevin! Do you have another one of these stones?”
And he said, “ Yeah, I do, but you know what’s weird? I have a Geiger counter and I put it on the rock. It was radioactive.
I said, “Whoa!” Then he told me not to grind it.
I said, “Too late! I’ve already done that!” My friend confessed that he had already done that with the stone he kept. We later talked to a scientist and found out that it wasn’t enough radioactivity to hurt us.
There are these canyons over there real close to where my house was. And you go down in this canyon with a Geiger counter and that is where the uranium is. But it’s naturally occurring. It’s low concentration so it’s not going to hurt you. A lot of things have traces of radioactivity. Of course, always wear a respirator when you are grinding stone.
I always wear a respirator and have ventilation going. There was always wind blowing in New Mexico. But in New Orleans, I tried to do the best that I could, but dust was flying all over the place. That bothered some people, so I had to devise something where no dust could escape.
In sculpture, you do make noise and there is dust. I have to find a place to work right now. I’m planning on tearing down my shed and building a studio up there.
Erin: How do you come up with a pricing structure for your art?
Benny: If you put your hours into it, it would be too expensive. You don’t want to price yourself out of the market, but you don’t want to give it away either. I know that I’m not going to take a cheap price for my work. I put too much into it. You can’t make it too expensive. I know people that like to buy art that aren’t rich people. And they will if they can afford it.
I’ve sold pieces for $1500 that a gallery would ask $3,000 to $5,000 for. That’s been my price range. Galleries always take half of the proceeds if it’s in their gallery.
My stuff is really heavy. Galleries have trouble moving it. Wherever I put it, that’s where it stays.
Erin: What’s the best advice you have ever received about your art?
Benny: To economize your material. Sometimes less is more and bigger isn’t always better.
Erin: Where can people see your work?
Benny: I’m not showing anywhere right now. I’ve been kind of hiding out for a while. Most of these paintings are done with the children. Sometimes they were riding on my shoulders with them helping me. I became their assistant, as they got older. My kids were making art. My son can weld. He was even in White Linen Night one year. And I didn’t get anything in that year, but he did! Now that they are more independent, they are more interested in me getting back into my art.
Erin: Do you have an online presence?
Benny: Just on Facebook. Facebook seems to be pretty easy.