Like the hand-pulled silk-screen art pieces that sit tucked away in a vault in Hoquiam, Barbara Bennett-Parsons, too, has sat on the sidelines of the art world.
Last March in Olympia, she ventured back into the scene by showing work by Elton Bennett, her father, for the first time since 2007.
As the event showcasing her father’s colorful scenes of the coast and its residents’ livelihoods approached, worry came over her.
She feared that maybe her own exile may have sullied the bond between her father — who died alongside his wife, Flora, in a commercial airplane crash in the late 1970s — his persona, his art and his loyal Bennettists. She had catered to them throughout the decades, creating a book on his life and holding periodic showings of his art since she and her sister acquired the works in 1989.
“I worked hard to have him and his artwork visible and alive, and I was worried that maybe I had damaged that connection,” she said.
This was not the first time she withdrew from the public eye. It also occurred after a bitter struggle between Bennett-Parsons and her sister, Evelyn Bennett, in 2004 that erupted into a very publicized court battle. Shared ownership established by the trust that gave them the art had ceased, and they tried to divide the pieces between themselves.
“It was not easy,” she said.
She said the experience was traumatizing, and made worse in that it coincided with caring for three loved ones who were diagnosed with terminal diseases.
While she and her sister have still not reconciled, Bennett-Parsons said it was the cathartic experience of coming to work for the Grays Harbor Farmer’s Market in 2007, where she is now manager, that pushed her to rejoin the scene.
“It was life giving,” she said. She held shows that year for the first time in a while. “I could feel myself coming alive again.”
And despite taking about another six years off, Bennett-Parsons has found there is really no reason to worry – the Elton Bennett persona is alive and well, and people from all over still want a glimpse of his works, the modernized— yet very realistic — depictions of every day life in the Pacific Northwest.
“People had to stand out in the hallways,” Parsons said, of her event at the Red Lion Hotel in Olympia in March. “I just thought, this is the best. He would have loved this.”
Like her father, Bennett-Parsons prefers these types of shows over galleries.
“He wouldn’t do gallery shows. He thought they were snobbish elitism,” she said. “He felt vehemently that art should never simply be in the realm of rich people, that it should take a degree or dressing well. He thought art, quality art, should be available to everyone.”
Bennett made sure to always have at least a year’s supply of his art ready to go instead of a life insurance policy.
“He didn’t like the idea of someone betting on his life,” said Bennett-Parsons.
Newly equipped with more than 5,000 pieces, she tried displaying them through the “standard route” of gallery showings. She said she realized that leaving her father’s artwork with people who may not understand it as well as she does was not what was best.
“No one can talk about it like I can. The intimacy is part of what makes it important,” she said, pointing to different pieces of her collection and recalling what they might be depicting. “I know those are nets drying or that’s Grass Creek. I know that world. Someone in Seattle or somewhere else isn’t going to know a logging camp from anything.”
And in turn, she feels the art does not receive its proper due.
“It’s meaningless to them (the gallery workers), and so it’s meaningless to the customer,” she said.
And the story she knows, including Bennett’s story of perseverance — from a young boy in the 1920s and ‘30s who did well in school, to a young man who made use of the GI Bill to go to art school at the insistence of his supportive wife — plays an important role in the back-story of his artwork.
“He had a working man’s mentality,” said Bennett-Parsons. “It didn’t matter that it was art, he worked eight to five every day; two coffee breaks and one lunch break.”
And when blood in his creative veins was not flowing, it was not an excuse to stop.
“People always wanted to know where his inspiration comes from. He said, ‘If I had to wait for inspiration, nothing would get done and the kids would be hungry,’ ” she said. “There was always something to be done, if not painting or doing art, he would say he could be cleaning his studio.”
A proud Hoquiamite, Bennett-Parsons said her father wished to give local people depictions of what they knew best; their natural surroundings, their industry, their stories. She said he deliberately devalued his artwork so that it was affordable in the area, and delighted in placing it in out-of-the way places where people might stumble upon it — many never knowing the card they were purchasing for three cents would become a piece of local history (Bennett-Parsons said some have sold for up to $450 on Ebay today).
“Because the connotation is that value equals price,” said Bennett-Parsons, who said she tries to keep up the spirit of her father’s will for affordable art through small print reproductions of his work which she sells at locations like the farmer’s market. “They’re small, beautiful, and they keep his legacy going,” she said.
The real pieces of his artwork, which sell for thousands of dollars a piece, she will continue to display and sell through private showings as she has done this past year— and she continues to hope for and push for a local museum to display her father’s work, even keeping an assortment of it locked away for when the day comes.
Since Olympia last March, she has shown his work in Silverdale and Issaquah and will hold a local show in Hoquiam on Dec. 7 — during “Ho Ho Hoquiam” in what was once the Levee Street Restaurant, at 711 Levee St.
“It looks out over the Hoquiam Bridge, it’s just like looking at one of my father’s views in his pictures,” she said of the space where the event will be held, which will include food and libations. “It had been sitting there empty, like it was just waiting for an Elton Bennett show.”
Sam Luvisi: 360-537-3935 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DwSluvisi on Twitter.