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Sculptor's Art Classes Stress Depth

July 11, 1986|CHRIS PASLES

Nationally known sculptor Fletcher Benton, 55, wants to make sure that art students aren't trained the way he was.

"My painting teacher had us copy calendar art," the San Francisco-based artist said in a recent phone interview. "It was a terrible way to teach. I hated it. It was very difficult for me because I didn't want to copy anything."

So Benton will adopt a different approach during his residency next week at the Art Institute of Southern California (formerly the Laguna College of Art) in Laguna Beach.

"I will try to get people to go into depth," he said. "I want the students to work through as much three-dimensional stuff as they can in the week so that they can work through the sophomoric stuff."

The residency, Monday through Friday, has been funded with a $5,000 grant from the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts. Benton's workshops, 9 a.m. to noon daily, will be open to the public. He will also present a slide lecture of his work at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

Benton said he teaches 90 students each semester at San Jose State University, where he's been for 22 years, and "it's amazing how much alike their work is in the first couple of weeks.

"That's because they have not explored enough to go beyond their first choice. So I push them. I demand 150 to 200 designs a semester. I want them to think."

Though known for his large outdoor sculptures, Benton actually began his art career as a painter.

Encouraged by his mother who set up studio space for him in their Ohio home, Benton began painting as a boy. He had his first exhibition when he was 14 and at that age also started his own commercial sign business after first teaching himself to design letters of the alphabet.

"At the time I didn't want commercial and fine art mixed up--another legacy of my painting teacher," he said wryly.

"There was a wall between the two. But in making signs (which he continued to do until 1973), I learned to love and have great respect for letters and words."

And eventually Benton's love of the alphabet re-emerged in the abstract geometric style he developed after largely abandoning painting in 1963.

"I continued to paint until a gallery in San Francisco took down one of my shows one day after putting it up," Benton said. "They called it obscene. But it wasn't. It had figurative things and kinetic movement, and it was painted bright pink.

"I think the color had a lot to do with it.

"At any rate, that put me in a thoroughly disgusted frame of mind, and afterwards I went totally abstract and into geometry. And that came from the alphabet forms I had dissociated from fine art."

Benton's explorations of abstract design went through several periods: the creation of kinetic sculptures in which geometric shapes were driven by motors; the evolution to fixed sculptures, in which movement may be implied but not seen directly, and, finally, the return to painting in a series of watercolors called "Steel Watercolors"--that pointed the way to his latest stage of sculpture.

An exhibition of some of these recent works, dating from 1978 to the present, are on view at the Laguna Beach gallery as part of Benton's residency.

According to Art Institute dean Jonathan Burke, Benton's work is characterized by "transparency, grace, lightness and delicacy.

"It's very sophisticated and serious work, but with a sense of playing," Burke said.

Benton said that he previously worked out most of his sculptures beforehand with models and drawings.

"But then three years ago, I also began working directly with shapes in an impromptu way," he said.

"I had slipped back to the way I had worked as a painter. It gave me a sense of freedom and gusto. It was very exciting, and it still is."

Although his sculptures now command prices beginning in four figures, Benton says he does not want to lose contact with teaching.

"Teaching is a very rewarding experience for me," he said. "It keeps you connected to the younger generation, and it's exciting to me from a selfish point of view."

But he does not consider "talent" as a necessary prerequisite for his students:

"Talent isn't part of the vocabulary," he said. "I don't accept it, and I don't believe in it. You have lots of talented and intelligent people who can't be artists because they don't have a love affair with art--and they don't have any motivation.

"That's what you need. You have to love going into a corner and entertaining your friends with crayons. And you have to be highly motivated."

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