For more than a year Albuquerque artist Robert Benjamin romanced New Mexico, seeking out the state's majestic mountains, serene waters, solitary churches, towering bluffs and lyrical light.
Traveling more than 8,000 miles across the state in 16 months, Benjamin kept his eye out for the perfect slant of light, the ideal slope of rocky pine-covered mountain, the glassy reflection of a slow moving stream.
When inspiration struck, Benjamin took out his camera and snapped several rolls of film, capturing a sunrise on the eastern slope of the stark Organ Mountains near Las Cruces, a sunset casting purple tendrils of shadow on the snow-covered slopes of mountains in Nogal and a gathering storm above the green mountains of Walnut Creek near Socorro.
Returning home to his Albuquerque studio, Benjamin pored through the piles of photographs, looking for a scene that he just had to paint using the full, rich palette of pastels.
"I was just so impressed with the wide open spaces of New Mexico that I tried to mimic the beauty that God made," says Benjamin.
Benjamin is an artist -of-all-trades, wielding a sculpting tool or a printing press as deftly as he does a paintbrush. Whatever medium he turns to, Benjamin expresses an artistic vision that celebrates the innate beauty of the natural world.
"I've always felt that if you were an artist worth something, you could work with any media." He says. "You could work with sticks if you wanted to. If I work with oils for a while, I'll get tired of that, and turn to sculpture, or I'll draw or work with acrylics. There is no limit to what I can do."
The 2nd oldest of five siblings, Benjamin grew up in Alliance, a steel town in northeastern Ohio. As a young boy, he took to drawing as naturally as most kids take to climbing trees or building forts.
"I couldn't see very well as a kid," he explains. "I was nearsighted, so I couldn't play in the creek or do the things that other kids were doing. Instead, I would go inside and draw."
Benjamin's mother fostered an interest in art, encouraging him to explore the world through drawing.
"It was always a good feeling when I'd make something and my mother would make a fuss over it," he says. "She was part of my strongest motivation."
At an early age, Benjamin made himself a solemn promise to become an artist after he watched his father go through the painful process of losing a job.
"I remember seeing my Dad come home really sad because he had just lost his job as a steelworker," Benjamin recalled. "I got to thinking 'Man, I really wouldn't want to be that sad or have someone be in control of my life or my destiny like that.' I thought. 'If I were an artist, then I'd never be out of work because I'd always be working for my self, doing what I like to do the most and making a living at it."
At age 10, Benjamin produces his first oil painting - an abstract image of a burning castle. While a high school student, he produced graphic designs that earned him awards in state and national commercial contests, including a journalism award for editorial cartooning from Kent State University. After graduating from high school, Benjamin spend a few months in a steel mill before realizing that he was not cut out for the life of a steelworker.
"I said. 'The hell with this. I'm going to art school,'" he says.
Benjamin then enrolled in the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, Pa., a two-year college. While there he skipped all the first-year classes and took only the second-year classes.
After his first year of art school, a hankering for the wide-open spaces of the West lured him to Albuquerque's underground hipster newspapers such as the Tribal Messenger and the Astral Projection.
Benjamin also took a job working in a frame shop, and hooked up with various artists including RC Gorman, who introduced him to the wonders of lithography.
One of Benjamin's first successes as a New Mexico artist was a series of drawings he made scenes of Madrid - a stone church, dilapidated houses, and old bridge. The offset prints he created from these drawings brought him an income for 20 years.
Benjamin soon realized that he was interested in other art forms, including sculpture, so he studied casting techniques with Tommy Hicks, the director of Shidoni Foundry in Santa Fe.
In 1980, Benjamin opened his own foundry, Southwest Bronze, in downtown Albuquerque and began to teach bronze sculpture casting and mold-making techniques.
He also started to freelance his designs for children's clothing, creating fun pieces that featured cartoon dinosaurs. At the same time, he became an art director for advertising projects in print and television.
In 1995 Benjamin began to work with Impressionist landscape painter Les Hawks.
"We'd go out on road trips together and paint outdoors." Benjamin recalls. "He's the one who opened up my eyes to see how to paint. He exposed me to a different way of painting, using the Theory of Three as a basis for creating an abstract design out of value, shape and color."
After Hawks became ill, Benjamin began to work with pastels in his studio. In 1998, he met artist Rebecca Lowe, and the two realized they shared a similar passion for art. Together, they began The Calendar Project - a series of pastels created from pictures they took of inspiring places around the state.
Traveling across the state in an Explorer, the pair trekked to places off the beaten path - and adobe church in the Golden during an October sunset, a snow-covered slope near Cimarrón, a lush green meadow in San Patricio, a special stream in Abiquiú illuminated by a setting snow, a red bluff in Prewitt.
"We just got lost chasing the light." Benjamin said. "We had to figure out where we were when we got back. We went until we ran out of gas."
Today, Benjamin's work belongs to numerous museum collections, including the Smithsonian Institution National Collection of Fine Art, the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts and the Navajo Tribal Museum in Window Rock, Ariz.
A national traveling exhibit, "Lithography in New Mexico," curated by the Museum of New Mexico, features one of Benjamin's prints, and his work also is represented in various public and private collections, including the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Ariz., the New Mexico Museum of National History in Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico Medical Center Cancer Research and Treatment Facility in Albuquerque.
His series of pastels created for New Mexico Magazine's 2001 Distinguished Artist Calendar capture stunning scenes of serene wilderness. At first glance, Benjamin's sophisticated palette and realistic images call to mind photo realism. But it's evident that his images are indeed painted.
"I used very deliberate pastel applications," the artist says. "I pushed the use of the medium in every direction. I didn't approach this work with any rules."
Instead, the artist made sure the design of each page told a tale, making the composition as strong as it could be, relying on nature's own colors to create the beauty.
"You don't paint with paint," Benjamin said. "You paint with light."
Benjamin's canvases contain scenes that the artist composed in the lens of a camera. But once he began to portray the picture on canvas, he frequently rearranged components, until the landscape suited his artistic eye.
"I call it lying, cheating and stealing when it comes to changing colors and shapes." He says laughing heartily. "Sometimes I'll take a tree out, or add one in."
The result, however, appeals to those who love the wilderness and the intoxicating beauty of New Mexico.
Written by: Lynn Cline for the New Mexico Magazine