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Sep 12, 2017 10:49 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The Nature Of An Artist: Kirsten Benfield

A Wainscott beach on Japanese paper by Kirsten Benfield. GARY MAMAY
Sep 14, 2017 9:54 AM

Kirsten Benfield’s grandparents inherited a travelogue from an unknown relative when she was a little girl. The diary was filled with thoughts and watercolors recorded when her family members traveled from England to New Zealand. “It inspired me,” she said sitting at her desk in her Springs cottage.

The travelogue has since disappeared but the memory of it still lingers in her mind and motivates her work. She grew up on the North Island of New Zealand in Auckland. “When I was 5, my parents took me overland, all over the world,” she said. The family traveled “hippie-style,” across Australia, Malaysia, India, Iran and Afghanistan.

Traveling took her away from family and friends, but the colors and smells of each exotic land remain with her today. Along the way, however, she and her mother picked up typhoid fever. By the time they reached England, her parents split up and she and her mother headed back to New Zealand. She left school at 16 to model, work in restaurants and study culinary arts and hospitality. She lived in Australia for a year and traveled to Europe, where she discovered the old masters.

In the meantime, her father, an architect, visited New York and fell in love with Sag Harbor. “It was his favorite town,” she said.

At 26, she followed in her father’s footsteps and traveled to New York City with her best friend, who secured a modeling contract with an agency, as well as her friend’s husband and their child. Within a year, they all moved to Southampton together.

She lives alone now but she’s not alone. She’s been part of the Nick and Toni’s restaurant family since 1996. “It was the first film festival, the diner,” she said of the time when Nick and Toni’s owner Jeff Salaway started the Hamptons International Film Festival and the company was running the Honest Diner in Amagansett. Mr. Salaway tragically passed away two weeks before September 11, 2001. “Jeff was just the light,” she said.

Ms. Benfield and Bonnie Munshin, along with co-owner Mark Smith and chef Joseph Realmuto, became the team that kept the classic East Hampton restaurant going through the years. When Ms. Munshin decided it was time to step back, and a new management team stepped in, Ms. Benfield had more time on her hands to pursue her artistic dreams.

“I’m more of an ambassador now,” she said. Less responsibility at the restaurant meant more time to expand her horizons. That’s when a coworker suggested teaching watercolor painting at the new Golden Eagle Artist Supply next door to the restaurant on Three Mile Harbor Road.

It was also one of the first places, besides Guild Hall in East Hampton, where she took classes, over a decade earlier. So she is coming full circle.

Her interest in art picked up when she married Paul LaBue, a chef at Nick and Toni’s. “Paul bought me a Nikon camera and suggested I take painting classes at Guild Hall,” she said of her now ex-husband.

A patron of the restaurant, who happens to be a pretty famous artist, also helped her out by telling her what color oil paints to buy, as well materials such as gamsole, a paint thinner and brush cleaner, and of course canvases. Mr. LaBue already had a palette to mix paints, and she was off to the races.

She took watercolor classes with Janet Jennings at the original Golden Eagle shop and when the store moved to a smaller location, the class moved to Ms. Jennings’s studio. Ten years later, Ms. Benfield is still taking weekly classes, and now a teacher herself.

When she turned 50 in 2015, she went to Venice to study calligraphy with Kazuaki Tanahashi for a week. “It was a bucket list thing,” she said. “We did one in the morning and one in the afternoon.”

The experience gave her a discipline that helped with her brushstrokes. “It changes how you think about your brushwork,” she said. In fact, calligraphy influenced all of her work the following year. “It’s not so much contextual or literal. It’s more abstract,” she said. “I took it a step further.”

“Keep pushing through,” she said. “Abstraction is extracting the details.” Like Pollock changed when he used anything but brushes, artists must continue to experiment and push themselves and their work. She first began her studies learning to paint trees, waves and the natural environment.

Then she began to look at other artists. “Cezanne inspired most of the early impressionists,” she said. When pressed to reveal her favorite artist, she is hesitant, claiming that different artists influence her work at different times.

“[J.M.W.] Turner is one of the artists I like to look at because of the watercolor,” she finally admitted.

Always a plein air artist, she is currently experimenting with monoprinting, inspired in part by the artist V. S. Gaitonde.

She grabbed one beauty of a sunset that began when she covered a plain square board with gray paint. She placed a piece of paper over it while the paint was still wet, pressed and lifted it up. “I turned it into what I saw,” she said.

One of my favorite pieces that Ms. Benfield brought out to show me was one of her “icon” paintings. An icon is an image that an artist will use over and over again, changing it each time, like de Kooning’s teacup. Her icon is a cellphone. “Everyone is staring at cellphones,” she said. “I see them in the restaurant. Parents will give them to their kids.”

“Bright Day Pines,” included in the Springs Invitational a few weeks ago at Ashawagh Hall, looks nothing like a cellphone. Four blocks of bright color, created with Karandash crayons and water, are broken up by a row of pine trees at the midline. “I was asked to speak about the work and I got emotional,” she said. “I realized I was putting nature back into my image.”

Kirsten Benfield will be in the exhibition “Free Falling” at Ashawagh Hall, Friday through Sunday with a reception on Saturday, September 16, from 5 to 8 p.m.

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