I suppose it's no secret that I'm a Thomas Hart Benton fan. I've certainly written about him enough here.
But if you're just tuning in, let me tell you a little bit about why Neosho's famous native son is on my list of favorite characters. If you've read it all before, please indulge me. Besides, as I learned long ago in the newspaper world, a little repetition doesn't hurt. ("What? Thomas Hart Benton was born and grew up in Neosho?")
First, though, an announcement: Everyone is invited to the annual Benton Birthday Bash at 1:30 p.m. this Saturday, April 13, in the schoolhouse at the Newton County Historical Park, 121 N. Washington St., in Neosho (one block north of the Square). Steve Sitton, site administrator of the Thomas Hart Benton home and studio in Kansas City will give a Powerpoint presentation on the Benton home and talk about the 14 murals Benton created over his lifetime. Steve is coming down from Kansas City, so let's show him a Neosho welcome!
Birthday cake and punch will be served, and you can pick up a collectible Benton pin, the third in our annual series, as well as the newly printed map of Neosho murals. Also, the Thomas Hart Benton room in the museum will be open, as always.
To quote directly from a recent write-up about Benton, "Born in Neosho, Mo., on April 15, 1889, Thomas Hart Benton has become a nationally and internationally known artist. He is the most recognized muralist in America. His first mural was drawn on his mother's newly papered wall. At age 7, with charcoal in hand, he sketched a train huffing and puffing up the stairs to the second floor of the Benton home. It was met with criticism and erased."
Tom Benton, always the individualist. And that's why I like him.
I'm going to borrow excerpts from a previous column in noting that Benton is the poster boy of individualism. Not only did he not just follow the crowd, he actually agitated it. And when hit, he hit back harder. The biggest reason I have come to personally admire Benton is for the way he stood his ground against the influential people of various circles. Not only did he not bend under criticism, he actually fought back.
While Benton was making his living in New York as an up and coming artist he became closely acquainted with the "in crowd" of the art world. Many of these were not only ideological socialists, but also outright communists. When his realistic paintings of pure Americana started showing up, Benton took fire from the Marxist crowd and other important people in the art culture for being "chauvinistic" and "isolationist." Today we would probably call this not embracing the "global community."
Instead of backing off, Benton shot back and said the New York Marxists didn't "know or understand" America. He went on to lambast them for their ignorance of the history of American political thought. Then he really let them – and the rest of his opponents – have it. Burning bridges behind and forward, Benton didn't seem to care that antagonizing influential people might seriously damage his career and livelihood. The way he looked it, "they started it." I love him for that.
Page 2 of 2 - It got to such a point that a New York art dealer finally pulled him aside and, according to Benton, said, "Tom, for God's sake, shut up. You are not only making the Commies mad, you are making everybody mad."
But that was Tom Benton. He also rebelled against the prevailing art style at the time and basically started his own movement.
Benton "called 'em like he saw 'em." His artwork reflects the way things really are and not the way we would like them to be or even try to make them appear.
Neosho's most famous native son, Thomas Hart Benton, was his own person. He never took anything lying down and he paid no attention to what others may think when he acted on his own convictions. Thomas Hart Benton of Neosho was no sheep blindly following the rest of the flock – even when doing so may have made his life easier.
Anyway, that's Benton. I hope to see you at the Benton Birthday Bash at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Wes Franklin serves on the board of directors of the Newton County Historical Society. He is also public relations/events coordinator for the City of Neosho. Call him at 658-8443.