Fascinating Rivers

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

"I just drew because I liked to do so," Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton once wrote. As he drew, his art and painting matured, until he became a nationally renowned artist.

Benton began his artistic career in Neosho, 16 miles south of Joplin, where he was born in 1889. Railroad trains got Benton's attention first. He called them "the most impressive things that came into [his] childhood."

But later in life, rivers - particularly the rivers of his native Missouri and the Ozarks - became the objects of his affection.

Benton took his first float trip in Gasconade County at age 11. The trip kindled a sense of wonder for flowing water. He would later write:

Muddy or not, the rivers have charm. Great sycamores hang over their banks and in the summer when the current moves slowly these are duplicated in the stream below. On one side or another of the rivers' outcropping white bluffs hang and break the monotony of tree branch and foliage.

At 17, Benton left Neosho and his family for Joplin, where he took an artist's position at the Joplin American. Following his family's wishes, he ultimately finished school at a military academy in Alton, Illinois. But art was his abiding interest and he enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute, before going to Paris.

In 1924, his father became seriously ill and Benton returned to Springfield, where he spent contemplative time on river banks. In the decade after his father died, Benton took many overland and water trips through the deep South, trips that would inform his art.

Benton's work spanned decades, and even into maturity he continued to be fascinated with rivers. Lyle Woodcock of St. Louis, John Callison of Prairie Village, Kan., and Bill Rogers of Eminence all have fond memories of floating with Thomas Hart Benton on Missouri waterways and observing the artist at work in the 1960s and 1970s.

Callison's friendship with Benton began in the late 1960s. After receiving a gift of a Benton lithograph from a friend, Callison became intrigued by the artist, and designed to meet him. His background in farming gave him much in common with Benton, and they both loved the Ozark rivers.

Callison went on three float trips with Benton. One was on the White River. An outfitter in the Ozarks, Harold Hedges, provided the canoes and gear, says Callison. "April was the best time because of the high water. We would stop at the School of the Ozarks for lunch. And by the time I started floating, Tom was famous. People would line the banks to get a look at him."

Benton's drawing,"Buffalo River - Float trip with jon boats in 1964. Camping for lunch and a nap," offers a glimpse of what a Benton float trip was like.

"We'd float for three or four days," Callison says, "and each day until late afternoon. There would be four or five people in the party. And, whenever Tom would see something that interested him, we would stop. Tom liked to paint the same point in a stream at different times of day. He studied the place in different light. He'd set up an easel and draw. Others of us fished or whatever."

Bill Rogers, now a retired conservation agent, got acquainted with Thomas Hart Benton in the 1960s. Between 1962 and 1966, he went on four or five canoe trips with Benton.

"Benton had a knack for picking out places where light and shadows played in interesting ways," says Rogers. "He really liked the Upper Jacks Fork area because it was more remote."

"And Benton always had a vision about his work," says Rogers. "He knew what he wanted to draw. He'd sketch without looking at the pad. And he was fast, working with charcoal. But there was nothing haphazard about it. He counted on me to keep the canoe perfectly still, and when he was ready to move, he'd wave his hand."

The first meeting between Benton and Woodcock was born of anything but quiet. The year was 1936. Woodcock was a young accountant filing papers for the Missouri Secretary of State. In a lounge at the capitol, someone told him, "There's an old dude painting murals on the rotunda."

Woodcock went to see the work in progress. As Woodcock was admiring what he saw, Benton got down from his scaffold, walked up behind Woodcock and tapped him on the shoulder.

Benton said, "You can criticize all you want, but it won't do you a damn bit of good." To which, Woodcock replied, "I can make you a cup of coffee, but I'm not good enough to criticize."

Woodcock and Benton sat down to coffee and a long, long talk that launched decades of friendship, lasting until Benton's death in 1974. "I can't draw a straight line," Woodcock says. "I don't think we'd have been as good of friends if I were an artist."

One of Woodcock's most pleasant memories is the float trip he took with Benton on the Eleven Point River. "Benton demanded silence on the rivers," Woodcock says. "He had a strong sense of what a painting would look like before he started it. I was amazed by what he could see that I could not."

"When Tom looked at water, I'm not sure he ever saw it as water," says Lyle Woodcock. "He saw the reflected colors moving together. That's what he would draw."

Those rambling colors are what Benton put on canvas in a painting Woodcock commissioned, titled Ozark Reflections. The colors of tempera that mingle and the strokes that dance on that canvas remind us how well Benton melded post-impressionist expression to American scenes.

In the ebb and flow of liaisons among American artists, Benton did have many artist friends, including Jackson Pollock and Grant Wood.

But, according to Callison, Benton's wife, Rita, was the person who provided him with the solace he needed for his work.

Benton met Rita in New York in the early 1920s, and she coaxed him to establish a summer residence at Martha's Vineyard. "Rita promised to take care of everything - business, marketing," Callison says. "Tom had to focus only on his art."

Lyle Woodcock and his wife, Aileen, visited the Bentons on Martha's Vineyard. Woodcock says, "Rita would collect crabs for soup. And, we would be quiet. There was no conversation while Tom worked. Time to talk came after he closed his studio, and it started with Scotch."

For all of Benton's fascination with water, particularly the flowing waters of Missouri, he had some ambivalent feelings about the force that rivers wielded in people's lives.

According to Woodcock, "Tom hated the Hudson River. There were no rivers for Benton around New York. They were not pristine."

Benton's love of clear beautiful waterways does not, according to Rogers, make him a naturalist. "A naturalist is someone who spends a lot of time studying, looking for themes, patterns ... categorizing," says Rogers. "Benton's approach was more poetic. He was more interested in the aesthetic."

Although not strictly an environmentalist, Benton was a supporter of the Ozark streams "Tom was forward thinking," Callison says. "He tried to influence what was happening. And, he worked hard to stop a dam on Arkansas' Buffalo River."

It's difficult not to attribute some naturalist or environmentalist tendencies to a man who loved wild rivers and enjoyed them so much and who would write about them:

To get in a skiff and row out in the middle of one of these rivers on a summer night when the moon is full is to find all the spirit of Spenser and his 'faery lands forlorn.' Missouri's summer moon is big and white and cuts out vivid and clear edges, but this only intensifies the somber interior depths of the tree shadows and adds an air of impenetrable and silent mystery to them.

There is, over these summer night waters and on the shadowed lands that border them, an ineffable peace, an immense quiet, which puts all ambitious effort back in its futile place and makes of a simple drift of sense and feeling the ultimate and proper end of life.

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