ANDY WARHOL, the man who invented a recipe for art out of Campbell's soup cans, said that one day everyone would have a chance to be famous for 15 minutes. That day is still on the horizon somewhere, but now here comes James Benfield, showing us that if you can't have fame, at least immortality is reasonably attainable.
Yes, the gods and art in your own living room, all for less than 100 bucks.
It was about three years ago that the idea struck Benfield like a thunderbolt. As a free-lance photographer, he was working with a friend at a news service venture. The friend was the reporter, Benfield was the photographer. That went along fine for a while -- until the friend was somehow fired and then who needs a photographer hanging around to make pictures for stories that are never written?
Benfield was out on a job.
Great things sometimes arise out of the most peculiar circumstances. So it wasn't until Benfield's huge schefflera plant died (a big one reaching 10 feet to the ceiling) that little seedlings of his budding brainstorm began to sprout.
It took a year for the plant to die, which is the time Benfield needed to think this one over.
"I got so mad," recalls the 36-year-old Benfield of the demise of his schefflera, "I said 'I want something green that doen't need to be watered!'"
We sometimes say such things when great loves abandon us unexpectedly.
Benfield picked up his "History of Art" by H.W. Janson and started looking for lush things to replace his plant. Finally, he stumbled on "The Dream," one of those jungle paintings with the big spooky-eyed tigers staring from them by Henri Rousseau.
Benfield couldn't get the original. Nelson Rockerfeller had already given it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and since Benfield was out of a job, he probably couldn't have afforded it anyway. So the problem remained: how to get a painting that is 16-feet-high and 8-feet-long on your wall when all you've got is an 8- by 11-inch color reproduction?
The photographer who had never really painted much, such as Benfield, this was easy. You paint it. And since you don't have much work to do anyway, you have plenty of time to learn how to paint.
(Benfield is the resident manager of his apartment building, so he lives rent free. He charges his roommate $300 a month, leaving him with a steady income.)
Now when you walk into Benfield's apartment near George Washington University you walk into "The Dream." All 48-square-feet of it. A rather naive reporduction granted. But good enough, and big enough, and green enough and bright enough. In the afternoons, the setting sun streams through Benfield's west-facing windows (where he hung a Sal Fiorito stained glass work to catch the rays) and lights the whole thing up like a Christmas tree.
At the time, it cost him around $50 and about 100 hours work.
"It's not art, not by any stretch of the imagination," says Benfield, with his Woody Allen grin. "I'm going after the response, not documentation. My colors are a million miles off. They're much more bright and alive than on the original."
Benfield is not an artist, but he is a photographer. Probably if he had been neither an artist nor a photographer "The Dream" would never have ended up on his wall.But as a photographer he knew there are certain ways to go about reproducing big objects from little objects.
He took his picture of "The Dream" from H.W. Janson's book, removed it cleanly with a razor blade, divided it up into 16 sections with a pencil and a ruler and snapped a picture of each section on Tri-X film with his Nikon camera using a macro lense.
He turned the black and white negative into 16 slides and projected each one on the wall from a distance that, when all were put in the right places, reproduced "The Dream" in its original size. Section by section, making sure the projector was level at the middle of where each portion should be sometimes stacking the projector on a Japanese Go game on phone books on end tables on chairs on dining tables to get the height he needed, he sketched in the outlines of "The Dream."
"It was penciled in in 10 hours. That part's a snap, and it's really a boost because in a day you've got the whole thing up there. Wow! Like playing your first chord when you learn how to play the guitar. There it is." p
Benfield knows this is sort of cheating, working off slides, but some big artists these days do more or less the same thing from photographs, and besides, Benfield just wanted to decorate his apartment.
The hard work began later.
Benfield took his picture to an art store and asked the sales clerk what he'd need to cover 48 square feet of it. He brought his acrylic paints and had at it, learning to mix the colors as he went, picking up a few tricks along the way, such as spraying water from a Windex bottle on the plaster before painting. He found this allowed him to move the paints around more, blending them without scraping so hard.
When the outline was more or less done, he bought some one-inch burring strips at the lumber yard, painted them black and nailed them up as a frame.
Smart looking, it is.
Benfield says that if he were doing it again, he would draw the grid on the wall as well as on the picture. He tried matching up the sections by eye, but when you make a little mistake on the original, it turns up a big booboo in the enlarging. Sometimes leaves were missing, and he had to use his imagination.
You can hardly tell.
He also advises using a plumb line and a level to keep things straight.
"The Dream," however, Benfield's version of it, is incomplete. The lower right hand section looks fine because he's spent a lot of time on it. But as you move leftward it needs touching up and in the upper left hand side there is a section that hasn't been painted at all.
Benfield has bought a house.
He doesn't seem to regret much that he won't finish it, that he must leave his masterpiece undone.
"Some people ask, 'Don't you want to take it with you?'" First of all, that would be difficult, removing the wall and all. Besides, he says, "It's all right for this room. This is exactly what the room needed. But it wouldn't work anywhere else."
It's all pretty useless, anyway, this talk of what to do with "The Dream." Benfield is leaving because he and the other tenants of the George Wasington Apartments received their eviction notices in June. The building is on a big piece of property in an area ripe for developement.
In a few months the builing is coming down, and "The Dream" with it.