Artist Mark Bennett talks about transforming loss into more abundant living
by Lester Strong
Whimsy and AIDS may not seem a compatible mix. But sometimes whimsy is an effective way of handling a situation too painful to deal with in other ways, as it has been in the hands of California-based visual artist Mark Bennett. And sometimes the intrusion of AIDS into one’s life, even when one is HIV-negative oneself, has a way of definitively changing one’s life course, as also happened to Bennett.
It’s obvious on meeting Bennett in person that this is an individual to whom whimsy comes naturally. Tall, slim, soft-spoken, he has a ready smile and an infectious laugh, especially when talking about his art. “A lot of people describe my work as ‘whimsical,’” he said when first approached about his art. “It certainly isn’t dark—that’s just not who I am.”
Bennett’s art falls into a number of genres: acrylics, ceramics, knitting, cards, and scenic design. The last two spring from his days working for CBS Television in its graphics department, first as a designer, illustrator, and cartoonist, then as manager of the entire department. Among the shows on which he worked: Wheel of Fortune, The Price Is Right, Family Feud, The Young and the Restless, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, Moonlighting, and Destiny, The Elizabeth Taylor Story.
Bennett commented: “I really enjoyed the years I spent in the graphics department. It was a job well suited to my temperament. There was a lot of variety, and things were done quickly. No boredom there! I was brought in as an illustrator, specifically to work on the credits for The Young and the Restless when they were still using hand-drawn portraits of the cast. I also did a lot of cartoon work for The Price Is Right, along with design work, prop making, signage, and even some sculpture.”
At the same time, he always did his own painting, noting: “It was a more personal statement I felt I had to make.”
It was while working at CBS that Bennett had his most painful encounters with AIDS. “I was there from 1980 to 1998,” he said, “which coincided with the worst years of the epidemic. The graphics department was grouped with the other creative services, and we all shared a large space. Within a few years of my starting there, I began to lose friends. There were a lot of gay men working in art direction, set decoration, and scenic design, and those departments were decimated.” The worst shock, though, came with the death of his friend Harvey Hand.
“Harvey was my best friend in high school,” Bennett explained. “I remember very clearly that he introduced himself to me while we were playing badminton, indoors in the gym during PE class on a rainy day. I was an art student, and he was in the drama department. He introduced me to the crazy world of high school drama, and I loved it! He was the first person who came out to me, and subsequently he was the first person I came out to. We were best friends, but never lovers.”
He continued: “In 1988 I was working at CBS and living in Los Angeles, while Harvey was living in San Francisco. We spoke over the phone regularly, but he didn’t tell me he was sick until a few days before he died, which was very sudden. This was the death I’ve had the hardest time accepting. To this day, part of me still thinks I’ll run into him again somewhere, that he isn’t dead at all.”
This was at a time when the AIDS Quilt was making quite a stir, and Bennett decided he wanted to memorialize his friend with a panel. “I bought the materials to make a Quilt panel,” he said, “but I kept putting it off and putting it off. I always said I couldn’t do it because I was so bad at sewing, but I know now that was an excuse. The truth is I just couldn’t bear the finality of making that panel, of acknowledging that Harvey was really gone. So finally, after fifteen years and some analysis, I felt ready to deal with it, and a painting was the solution. I called it The Quilt, for obvious reasons when you look at it. There are signatures at the bottom by our little gang from high school—my own, and those of our friends Carol, Desi, and Grace. I displayed it in a show once, but have since had it hanging in my studio.”
Looking at The Quilt, an acrylic painting that depicts two figures sewing an AIDS Quilt panel, the mellow colors and playful drawing point to the influence of Colombian-born artist Fernando Botero (one of Bennett’s favorites) and his own professional background as a cartoonist. True to his temperament and artistic style, the figures seem to float serenely in their own universe, although the subject matter, encompassing as it does memorializing someone lost to AIDS, is anything but serene.
The painting has a second connection with AIDS other than his friend Harvey. “I guess the figure on the left is me. He has my blond hair and goatee,” said Bennett. “And when I look at the piece closely, the figure [on the right] at the sewing machine must be Greg York. This never occurred to me before. He was a dear friend of mine at CBS, a costumer for The Young and the Restless. He died of AIDS in the mid-1990s, years before I did the painting. I’m sure he would have helped me sew the panel for Harvey if I’d asked.”
It was the loss of his friend Greg that prompted Bennett to make some big changes in his own life. “Greg’s loss was devastating,” he said. “At the time I was in charge of the graphics department at CBS Television, not doing any artwork of my own, and not very happy in my job any more. When Greg passed away, I knew it was time to move on and make time to do the things in life I’d always wanted to do and never had time for. I feel that’s what Greg would have wanted for me. So I started working freelance and spending more time painting, exploring other aspects of my art, and experiencing the world around me in new ways.”
According to Bennett: “The ‘Harvey’ painting is the only one I’ve done specifically about AIDS. But you might say everything I’ve done since the late 1990s is a response to the crisis.” Encounters with AIDS are never pleasant, but sometimes they’re productive in unexpected ways. For Mark Bennett, they led to a fruitful reengagement with his visual arts talent that he’s found worthwhile and invigorating. And when you think of it, that’s one surefire way of denying AIDS the power to diminish our lives no matter how painful the encounter.
Over the years, Mark Bennett’s art has been exhibited in a number of California venues; no show is scheduled for the immediate future, but you can view more of his art on-line at www.artbymarkbennett.com.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U.