Well-known Aspen artist has died
April 30, 2007
ASPEN ” Tom Benton, a local artist whose images helped to define Aspen’s tempestuous political and social upheavals in the late 1960s, died around 7:30 a.m. Friday at St. Anthony’s North Hospital in Denver after a brief battle with cancer. He was 76.
One of Aspen’s best-known local artists, Benton had a wide circle of friends, perhaps most famous was Hunter S. Thompson, with whom Benton collaborated artistically and politically.
When Thompson ran for Pitkin County sheriff in 1970, Benton, Thompson and artist Paul Pascarella. turned out a poster that remains one of his most sought-after works ” the double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button.
And his most recent work has included a highly popular poster for the current holder of that same office, Sheriff Bob Braudis, close friend of both Benton and Thompson.
“Tom, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the images of old Aspen, one of the reasons I’ve stayed here,” said photographer Bob Krueger, who has known the Bentons for decades.
Benton was born in Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 16, 1930, but later moved to Southern California. He enlisted in the Navy in the late 1940s and served aboard a ship during the Korean War, but never saw direct fighting.
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After working as an architect for a number of years, designing building in Northern California, he moved to Aspen to be an artist in 1963.
It was his silk-screening work that made him a local legend, as he began cranking out political posters, some for such nationally known figures as Thompson and U.S. Sen. George McGovern in his 1972 presidential bid. He also began turning out The Aspen Wallposters, again in collaboration with Thompson, locally famous bits of history that carried political screeds from Thompson on one side and startling Benton images on the other.
And along the way, he developed an ever broadening circle of friends, such as Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis and Woody Creek rancher George Stranahan.
“It was open house up there,” Stranahan recalled of Benton’s studio. “Tom’d be up there screening his prints, his kids’d be all around and everybody was welcome.”
Braudis said Benton was on the “oral examination board” convened by Pitkin County Sheriff Dick Kienast when Braudis first applied for a job with the sheriff’s office in 1976.
“He asked me two questions,” Braudis remembered, “what I thought of burglary … and what I thought about marijuana.” Braudis responded that “burglary was a dangerous crime because it might turn violent if somebody was at home,” and that “marijuana should be legalized.”
“He told me, ‘Don’t ever let anyone burglarize my marijuana,'” Braudis continued, and Braudis got the job.
Living the life of a struggling Aspen artist took a toll on Benton’s family affairs, starting with a divorce in 1977 that forced him to sell his gallery/studio as part of the settlement.
He established himself in studios around Aspen and the upper Roaring Fork Valley, and remarrying twice, in the mid-1980s to the late Katie Smith, and in 1991 to Marci Griffin, who said their 16 anniversary is today.
Besides his posters, he produces other forms of screened and painted art, including large, multi-piece works that require considerable display space but have been prized by certain art collectors.
By 1989, as he has said more than once, he was in need of a regular paycheck, and Braudis hired him as a jail deputy, where he worked full time, off and on, until 2003.
Longtime jail supervisor Billy Tomb, who worked with Benton for years, called him “a great fellow, an icon of the town, a character in his own right” and a jailer who “wouldn’t take guff from anyone … a great, feisty old man.”
But his love of art continued and, in the mid 1990s, he quit the jail and tried his hand at painting.
A one-man show at an Aspen gallery was well received, but financial gains did not follow, and by 1996 he was back at work at the jail, where he worked until finally retiring in 2003.
“The reward isn’t what you get at the end. It’s doing it,” he said. “That’s the pain and that’s the pleasure. For my intellect, it takes every goddamn bit of energy I can muster.”
He continue to produce prints, using a makeshift studio on Stranahan’s property and selling his works through the Woody Creek Art Studio, until he was diagnosed with advanced lymphoma about two months ago. He was hospitalized in early February and after a week at Aspen Valley Hospital was transferred to Denver.
His family had made plans this week to bring Benton back to Aspen once it became clear that treatments were not effective, and an ambulance sent to retrieve him was en route when he died, apparently of pneumonia related to the cancer, Tomb said.
Benton is survived by his children, Brian Benton and Michelle (Bremer) Benton; two grandchildren, Natalie and Emily Bremer; and his wife, Marci.