Sunlit scenes and energetic brushstrokes – many of us know the work of Ben Fenske, but few of us know him. As he prepared for the opening of his annual exhibition at the Grenning Gallery in the Hamptons, un-stretching painting after painting to take with him to New York, I sat down to talk to him. It is a perennial pilgrimage that he makes, from his home in the Tuscan hills to the manicured lawns of the Hamptons where his work is in popular demand.
His house is an old farmhouse, surrounded by olive trees and rolling hillside. It is large, rustic, and minimal. Rows of canvas line many of the otherwise mostly empty rooms. When Ben is not painting, he always has a project going – cutting down large trees to turn into highly crafted furniture or growing an impressive vegetable garden. He is a hard worker who aims to master everything he puts his hand to.
Ben looks like a painter: paint-stained canvas trousers, a sun-bleached t-shirt, and iron capped boots, the uniform of a man whose entire life revolves around painting outdoors.
So how did a Minnesotan from a small town end up surrounded by paintings in the Tuscan hillside, preparing for his 13th annual solo exhibition in New York?
“I grew up in rural St. Joseph, Minnesota. A small town where there was no art scene. In school, there were art classes like ‘take a square piece of paper and try to make it round, then glue some googly eyes on it’ and that’s your art project. Then in high school I had an art teacher, the only art teacher there, he specialized in ceramics, he was a nice guy and he would say, “Hey Ben come here for a second, the school ordered too many brushes why don’t you take a few home?” And I’d say “Ok.”
“From age 12 I did a minimum of 2 hours of drawing and painting a day, and when I was in high school I did more. I had my own little lair that I carved out in the basement in secret and I would do two hours of drawing every night when everyone was asleep, there was never a day when I didn’t have a project going.
“Sometimes I would draw something from life outside and I would take that drawing and spend a month making a painting out of it. Sometimes I would copy from books and photographs, in charcoal, watercolor, acrylic, pastel, all kinds of stuff.
“When I was 18, I went to the Minnesota River School of Fine Art. The woman who ran it was a student of Richard Lack. It was a beautiful building, purpose-built, north light studio. The idea was that you take classes as you want. So, you could take cast drawing one on one, two days a week, and I had Daren Roussar as my cast drawing instructor who went to Charles Cecil Studios in Florence. I also took Joe Paquet’s class on composition and design and an outdoor class.
“I was working part-time at Jasc Software as a graphic designer. I felt out of place being the youngest person there. It was in the suburbs and I thought, what am I doing with my life? I’m 18, everyone else goes to college to do something and I was just in the suburb. It was the dotcom boom, everyone I knew was getting bonuses and raises, young people suddenly making a lot of money, buying houses and cars. I was just miserable. I would tell people, I’ve got to get out of here, and they’d say ‘what are you talking about, we’re living the dream.’ I felt like I was in a trap and it was getting harder and harder, the noose was tightening.
“The next year I went to Bougie Studio. It was set up where they had the master, Peter Bougie, and another professional painter, and you paid something like 2000 dollars a year. Figure drawing in the morning, cast drawing in the afternoon. Ten students, and the fees paid for the models and the building. The teachers didn’t take any money, in that sense it was set up like a real 19th-century atelier.
“I would go to school every day, figure drawing in the morning, cast drawing in the afternoon, and theoretically I was supposed to do 4 or 5 hours a night on the computer at home, and I would do one day a week at the office. I didn’t want to do that work; it was a way to make money but it’s hard to really concentrate on two things. So that started this pattern of quitting my job, running out of money, and asking for my job back. I did that 7 times. At a certain point, I decided I wanted to go to Florence. I’d heard about Florence through other teachers and models who had passed through the school. I was looking for an escape, I wanted to get out of the pattern of feeling like I had to work, and I wanted to focus on painting and drawing. I worked full time for a year, I saved money, and I came to Florence. It was such an escape from normal life that I didn’t want to leave.
“I went straight to The Florence Academy of Art, I was 24. I thought people at the Bougie Studio were more serious, more well-read and they knew more about art, but the people in Florence were a younger, more diverse crowd, and the biggest thing for me was that I felt free. I didn’t have to worry about car insurance and rent because I’d saved money, and I didn’t have to get my mail every day. That was the biggest thing for me, I had to go to my mailbox every day in America. I’d worry about where my car was parked because it would get towed every other week, and sitting in traffic for 2 hours a day, I just escaped all of that and I finally made some friends, it was awesome. I had really good intentions about the school but in the end, it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to learn how to draw but I was more drawn to Old Master and Russian methods. I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time but in the end, I ran out of money so I couldn’t go back, it was kind of a blessing that that happened.
“I went back to Minnesota. In the summers I was pouring concrete with my brother because I didn’t want to go back to the office job, I couldn’t stand sitting inside in the summer, I felt like I was rotting away there. Instead, I was working for a third of the pay, outside doing something physical. But I started to get a lot of debt, so I asked for my old job back, got myself out of debt, and moved to Oregon to teach at a school set up by a guy who had trained in the Soviet Union. I was very interested in Russian style drawing and Soviet style painting. He had an understanding of the different teaching systems and different theories about drawing.
“I’d discovered Russian and Soviet art when I was 18. There was a museum of Soviet art in Minneapolis and as soon as I came to Europe, I went to Holland to go to a Repin show, I was just so into it. I wanted to figure out more about it, there was something exciting happening. There were still people alive working in that way and doing these drawings that I think are amazing, so I wanted to learn more about that.
“I realized that I wanted to go back to Italy. I had a very small retirement plan from my office job, I cashed that out, and the idea was to contact Marc Dalessio, who I knew from the Florence Academy, and I was going to try to get a spot in his studio because I thought that was what you did, you had to have a studio. I hung around him a lot, spent a long time with him, and he had a certain path that he took with his life and I really admired that. I painted with him so much that a lot of his methods sort of rubbed off on me, but we were always very different.
“In the meantime, I was walking around Florence, drawing. If someone could pose, I’d draw them. I was still in this mindset that I had to learn more and practice more. A year later I started showing with the Grenning Gallery. I went out there with Marc to do a show, made a little bit of money, and then I had a series of studios in Florence.
“In 2010 I went to a Russian school in Florence, I was still pursuing that angle, construction drawing, the Soviet method. I’m a really bad student, I’m always questioning the methods too much to actually just do them.
“I was also pursuing this other angle, outdoor painting. Originally I’d wanted to be a portrait painter, when I was 18 I loved doing portraits, I was pretty good at it, and I was reading all the books about the great portrait painters and I thought I’d set up a big studio and people will just come to pose and I’d get rich doing portraits, but I was reading about things that happened in the 19th century, I didn’t realize it doesn’t work like that anymore. I also didn’t realize I don’t have the contacts, the character, or temperament to deal with people.
“I don’t do landscape painting; I don’t see it as a separate thing. I paint outside, I like the light and all the different possibilities and colors. I find being in a studio a sterile environment. Unless you’re working on something that you’ve already been inspired by in the outside world. I’d see a still life set up in a north light studio and it looked dead to me. I would see the same objects in my tiny kitchen apartment, and it would just look amazing. All the paintings I liked were very rarely a north light situation.
“Some of the painters I admire the most are the Tkachev brothers, I just love their stuff, and Soviet paintings in general, I just love it. Other than that, any turn of the century painters, so many great paintings, that’s the stuff that really gets me.”
Ben’s solo show opens at the Grenning Gallery on the 29th of August. Although there will not be a physical opening this year, all the work will be available to view online via the gallery website the Grenning Gallery.
Ben taught the most in-depth landscape painting course ever produced for New Masters Academy in 24 lessons called “Introduction to Landscape Painting.”