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Artist Spotlight: Milbie Benge

Photos by Ethan Sleeper

The first thing you notice when you meet Milbie Benge is her irresistible warmth and authenticity. She sees the beauty of the world and you feel it when you look in her eyes. She imbues her paintings with tenderness, and creates landscapes that radiate soul.

Benge grew up in Sacramento, California in a full household with five other siblings. Her father was a preacher and encouraged her to draw from a young age. As a child, she took her first art classes through a correspondence course. This enabled her to received art lessons and assignments in the mail, complete drawings and paintings using the prescribed techniques, and send her work back for critique. Benge married soon after high school and had two children. She and her husband, Reed, moved to Austin, and he bought her a set of art supplies. She began painting and sketching, and painted scenes on the walls for her children.

When the proverbial birds left the nest to go to elementary school, Benge used her newly acquired free time to enroll in a variety of different art classes, and began learning formal techniques. In these classes, she studied with Dalhart Windberg, about whom she said: “I learned a lot from him, but I also learned I didn’t want to paint like him.” Winberg’s style involved basing a painting on a photograph or sketch in a very true-to-reality fashion that was hyper-focused on detail. Benge felt that, instead, she resonated more with the artistic approach of one of her other classmates: A.D. Greer.

Greer had a completely different process for crafting his paintings. He would take and collect photos of landscapes as a “collage" of inspiration. He called this collection his “morgue”. Rather than precisely copying a scene, he would instead, spontaneously incorporate bits of influence from his collage and compose an fully original scene. This influenced Benge’s style greatly, since it left a lot more room for imagination.

Benge also picked up some of Greer's quirks. Attached to the bottom of her easel, for example, is a roll of Scott’s 1-ply toilet paper on a holder, bolted to the wood. Greer invented this method for convenient access to an implement to dab the canvas.

During her time assisting Greer, she began exhibiting her artwork and selling her pieces for just enough to cover the costs of the canvases and paint. Over time, she attracted more and more attention. Soon, she was showing her art in galleries and exhibitions from New York to California.

She admits: “How I ever got enough nerve to display my art in galleries is mind boggling to me. I wasn’t completely sold on my work back then… but people started to get interested!”

Benge’s portfolio consists of mostly landscapes with few floral still lives sprinkled in. She said, she was always drawn to landscape, and she sometimes incorporates figures her landscapes. Mainly, she paints scenes form Kentucky, Texas, and Northern California, although she also has works from her travels.

Milbie’s current love is painting in a style known as “plein air”. This style involves traveling to the location and setting up an easel and canvas. It is unique in that each piece must be completed in between ten minutes to one hour due the natural change in the sun's light. This is in stark contrast to Benge’s preliminary method where she would paint a layer on one piece, and then put it aside to paint another layer on a different piece, while waiting for the first piece to dry. Benge says that painting under constraints of plein air taught her how to discern which details to emphasize, and which details to leave out. “Paintings are never perfect,” she says, “but with plein air, at least, you’re one and done”.

Benge currently mentors her niece who is an aspiring artist. She’s teaching her how to be deliberate with what to include and what to leave out when capturing a scene. Benge takes a lot of joy in her pupil’s progress.


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