It Runs in the Family

The Benson Family
From left to right: Aaron, Zac, Mary, Sarah, Betty, and Lee Benson with their installation in the Ewing Gallery.

The Bensons are a family of artists, of Tennessee natives, and of University of Tennessee alumni. This past spring, The Ewing Gallery of Art and Architecture and the University of Tennessee Potter’s Club featured their work in Common Lineage: The Bensons.

The newest alumna, Mary Benson Carbonell, received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in ceramics in 2013, and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in art education at UT. Her older brothers, Aaron and Zac, earned their degrees in ceramics and sculpture, respectively. Zac, who graduated from UT in 2009, went on to earn his MFA in studio art from the University of Maryland, College Park. Aaron graduated in 2007, received his MFA from New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred, and is now an assistant professor of art at the University of North Alabama, teaching ceramics/sculpture/3-D.

Their father, Lee Benson, earned three degrees from UT – BFA in studio art, BS in art education, and MFA in ceramics in 1989 – and is a professor of fine arts in sculpture and ceramics and chair of the art department at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Lee met his wife, Elizabeth, while in graduate school, and together they started Benson Sculpture LLC.

Working collaboratively with their children (including daughter Sarah Benson), they create large-scale public sculptures out of timber, earth, and stone, which have been exhibited nationally and internationally. Recently, the Bensons have developed a relationship with Habitat for Humanity and Habitat for Humanity International to repurpose materials used in their sculptures to build homes in the community where the sculptures were exhibited.

The Bensons work well together, but as the Ewing Gallery exhibition demonstrated, they each have a distinct artistic vision and approach. Aaron, who works mostly in ceramics, describes his work as “using reductive forms and essential materials to span the gap between the present and the eternal.” Zac often repurposes found materials to make large sculptures that offer searing commentaries on current events. Mary exhibited large-scale photographic prints, and Lee works with a variety of materials, including sugar, gold leaf, VHS tape, and money.

Whether working individually or as a group, the Benson family is driven by their religious faith and moral convictions to create art that addresses social challenges. Their years spent at UT were not only important skill-building times, but also inspired each member of the family to celebrate and uplift the communities in which they work.

(Story originally from University of Tennessee School of Art Newsletter)