I’m a research guide for PEM. While I don’t have specific art history or a fine arts background, I do like visiting museums and have really enjoyed researching a bibliography for other PEM Guides as they’ve prepared for the exhibition American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.
I didn’t know much about Benton before embarking on my research, but valued the journey learning about his work. I found the photos of his paintings fascinating, but I had no idea how powerful his murals — this public art — would be in person. Benton completed 13 major mural commissions between 1931 and 1975.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the New Britain Museum of American Art, which has on permanent display five of the eight panels of Benton’s mural series Arts of Life in America, completed in 1932. I wasn’t prepared for the impact these panels would have on me, or for how they would get me thinking about what Benton was doing. The panels are big, full of color with sharp lighting and shadows. They have a strong feeling of movement, as if they were painted while listening to music. The subjects can’t sit still. Neither can your eyes. They are drawn from one scene to another, each scene a story unto itself, while also contributing to the greater narrative of the mural.
Then while viewing the mural panel Arts in the City, it shifted for me. My eyes were drawn to the large central scene of three men making and selling booze during prohibition. It stood out as a separate story within the larger picture. From there my eye went to a honky-tonk and again a new story jumped out. This kept happening. My eyes were drawn from one scene to another, from one story to another, while also contributing to the greater narrative of the mural. It’s hard for me to say what Benton was thinking while painting, but for me the stories came together as a picture of the art of living in America during prohibition. It was like looking at one of those old gangster movies. Remarkable. It’s hard to imagine this composition in any other way but as a storyboard for a film, a series of scenes arranged to tell the whole story.
However, there is also something else going on in the murals that I almost missed. Something beyond the art itself. I think for Benton, each story was a work of art. What we each decide to do with our life, what we decide to create as our life is the same as what an artist decides to create on a blank canvas. We all make choices — just as the artist does — to create our story. I suppose it even goes further in that we tell ourselves stories that support who we think we are, just as Benton told stories about how he saw America in its present form and in history.
Henry M. Frechette, Jr., brings more than 30 years of experience to the learning and consulting industries. His primary areas of expertise and practice are decision making, collaborative work processes, leadership and applying organizational learning tools to sustained individual and organizational change. Most recently, he founded the Banyan group, an association of professionals researching and practicing a new form of adult learning they call “in line learning,” a process that teaches people to be better observers of their work.