Help a Student "Stay the Course"
"It always was a balance between what you owed to your children and your household and your family, and what you give from your heart to other endeavors," his widow, Beverly Benjamin, said about Karl's philanthropy.
Established during the 1996-1997 academic year, the Karl and Beverly Benjamin Fellowship in Art through the School of Arts & Humanities recognizes an outstanding student in the master of fine arts program whose major emphasis is the study of painting.
Karl—a nationally acclaimed painter, alumnus and former CGU professor-and Beverly Benjamin (PhD, Education, 1980) set up two planned gifts to support the university's painting program. One gift helps fund the Roland Reiss Endowed Chair in Art, a senior level faculty position named after a former CGU Art Department chair, while the other gift provides for the fellowship.
The fellowship recipient for 2012-2013 was Leslie Love Stone, a conceptual painter who graduated in May.
"Since coming to Claremont, I've had the great pleasure to meet the Benjamin family—they are warm, generous, and passionate about education. For me, their fellowship has been a most appreciated invitation to join the community of professional artists and a challenge to stay the course," Stone said.
Helping art students "stay the course" has been the purpose behind the fellowship all along, as Beverly Benjamin explained. After all, Karl himself knew first-hand how challenging it is to establish yourself early on as an artist.
A Good Teacher
Karl Benjamin began his college education in 1943 at Northwestern University in Chicago. He later opted to enlist in the U.S. Navy, and after his military service he moved to Southern California. He resumed his studies at what is now known as the University of Redlands. There, he met Beverly. Both eventually received bachelor's degrees and were married.
While at Redlands, Beverly said, three different career paths were presented to Karl: Heavy equipment operator, salesperson for the Pep Boys auto parts chain, or teacher.
Inspired by his mother, who taught high school science, Karl opted to enter the classroom.
"He had a soft spot in his heart for the fact that his mother had always been such a good teacher and was so prized by her students that at the age of 85 she was still corresponding with them," Beverly said.
Karl began teaching at grade schools in San Bernardino County, eventually moving his growing family to Claremont in 1952. It was around this time when his interest in art emerged. Asked to incorporate art lessons into his students' curriculum, Karl brought them simple, affordable material—crayons and paper, for example—and gave them assignments like, "make a rainbow," according to 2008 interview for an online art journal.
"During his years of teaching public school, he was known for bringing out really beautiful things," Beverly recalled. "He bought the kids oil pastels. Maybe that's where he got the idea about providing a graduate student with enough of a fellowship to buy some materials."
Karl—who had no formal background or training in art at the time—eventually decided to pick up a brush himself.
"Reverse Jackson Pollock"
"He came to painting rather later," Beverly said. "He was already teaching sixth grade . . . so he knew how hard it was to be able to afford paint and canvas and the beginnings of a studio."
His initial attempt, inspired by surrealist Joan Miró, was a critical first step into the world of art. "Boy, that first painting—big addiction. It just hit in his heart," Beverly said. By the late 1950s, Karl had focused on geometry and color, and was considered part of a noteworthy small circle of Southern California-based abstract classicists. In 1959, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art organized a show of Karl and others' work that received wide acclaim.
According to a 2012 New York Times tribute, Karl's "canvases were known for their simple, repeating geometric shapes, gridlike orderliness and fields of exuberant color that almost never bled into one another. It was a style that made him a sort of reverse Jackson Pollock, who epitomized the New York-based Abstract Expressionist school with his epic canvases of seemingly chaotic splashings and drippings."
Interest in his style spiked again during the 1990s when a whole generation of artists—including CGU art professor David Pagel—rediscovered it.
Karl also served as an art professor at CGU and Pomona College and at the time of his death he was lauded as "a dedicated mentor to generations of CGU art students." Even after Benjamin retired, he kept i
n touch with the university, visited students' studios, and attended their exhibitions
"He just loved being part of a graduate school," Beverly said, and his retirement in the mid-1990s didn't impact his commitment.
"When he retired, he had had so many students—a full class roster full of graduate students," Beverly said. "The students would come to him and say, ‘Could you please find the time to finish out my second year.' Or, ‘I'm just coming into this and I need your help.' This would continue for at least 10 years.
"And that was his retirement activity," Beverly said.
"These people become good friends, lifelong friends. People who were students of Karl back in 1979, 1980 were still his good friends . . . until the day he died."
It is through the Benjamin fellowship that Karl's legacy of continued giving lives on.
"I am very glad to have my name on this fellowship," Beverly said. "It's nice to have given something to the school."
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