Forty years ago, on a hill between the LA beach suburbs of Santa Monica and Venice, a 7-year-old boy had a bicycle accident that would render him comatose for three hours. Just six months ago Charles Benefiel–the boy on the bike, now an accomplished artist–fell into a coma again.
“It was a complete accident. It wasn’t something I intended to do at all,” Benefiel said, describing his entree to the art world. Even though he suffered no visible physical damage from the wipeout when he was a boy, Benefiel believes the bicycle accident altered his brain and caused the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder he has grappled with since that day. “From that point forward, I think there was a very strong chemical change that took over in my brain. And I ran to it. Because I was so young, I didn’t have the words to say what I wanted to say about what was going on around me and I just developed all these very strange rituals in order to avoid future trouble. It led to me becoming an absolute loner.”
He had always enjoyed drawing as a child, but this cognitive shift instilled in him a devotion to intricate detail. He worked on a miniscule scale, making activity books and comic books the size of postage stamps. “That progressed over the years into a style where I could actually work out my obsessive tendencies by taking a pen and tapping it over and over and over and over again.”
Benefiel had unknowingly absorbed this new style of drawing–stippling–from comic books and psychedelic rock posters, as well as the mystifying antique magic posters that hung on the walls of a bar down the street from his childhood home. Dressed in tuxedos, eye makeup, and bejeweled turbans, the turn-of-the-century magicians on these posters promised dark magic to a young Benefiel, forging what he calls “an antiquated identity, like an America that’s no longer here.”
Bigger And Bigger And Bigger
Benefiel’s real America was all about teen homelessness and gang activity in the 1980s LA punk scene. “It was crazy back then.” he says. “The stories all true. It was an insane time.”
Insane, but influential. During his time as a self-described gutterpunk, Benefiel started customizing leather jackets, the uniform of punk. “When you were in the punk scene, you could wear your politics on your sleeve with your leather jacket. The jackets ended up being really intricate forms of personal armor, and in a scene where people were literally looking to kill each other on a daily basis, armor came in handy.”
In addition to turning the jackets literally into defensive gear by fortifying them with spiked dog collars at the elbows, Benefiel credits leather jackets as the canvas upon which he first worked in stipple. With metal studs of various colors and sizes as well as paint, he created patterns that laid the groundwork for his future artistic style.
Soon enough, people took notice. His friends came to him to personalize their own jackets and Benefiel was eventually approached by a woman who needed jackets for the 1989 Corey Haim and Corey Feldman film Dream A Little Dream. He obliged: the intricately designed leather jacket Feldman wears on the film’s poster is Benefiel’s work. Its creator was homeless.
The stippling jumped from jacket to paper when he moved into an apartment and bought his first drawing table–ninety-nine dollars from Aaron Brothers. Here he took the minute details he’d practiced on the square-inch comic books and used them in drawings that became larger and larger. “I just started working on drawings, and the more I worked on them, the more I liked them. But I didn’t like finishing them so quickly, so I started working bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Ghosts And Demons
By the time the 24-year-old Benefiel departed LA for New Mexico, he had already left twice before: once to live with his father in Washington, and once to travel the world–India, the Middle East, all of Europe, Australia with punk royalty, bands like The Blasters and X. He had also started a publishing company out of a garage with a friend Frank Gargani. Their first work was to publish an audio book for Michael Blake’s novel, Dances with Wolves, which Blake would later adapt into the script for the Oscar-winning film of the same name. Another of their audio book publishing ventures was Riders on the Storm, the autobiography of The Doors’ John Densmore. They arranged for readings of their works for people such as Viggo Mortensen, Exene Cervenka, John Densmore, and Michael Blake.
Charles Benefiel had not only survived, he was thriving. But many of his friends had not. Benefiel saw people he cared about pass away at an alarming rate, from drugs or gang warfare or suicidal behavior. During one two-month span, he lost five friends. So he left LA once again, this time for New Mexico.
He lived in one ghost town, Madrid (population 204), with a group of women who’d asked him to move in to bring male energy to their compound, and then another, Cerrillos (population 321). He was able to focus on his art in these isolated environments, but it was nothing more than a hobby until a business venture failed and he cracked under the pressure. “I had a very visible nervous breakdown and my friends ended up taking me to the hospital which, at the time, was UNM in New Mexico. So I was living in New Mexico in the mountains, working on drawings, and then going for outpatient therapy at UNM for quite a while, and one day, one of the therapists said, ‘So what do you do in your spare time? How are you taking care of yourself?’”
When he showed the therapist one of his drawings, the therapist was floored. “He said, ‘This isn’t drawing. This is art.’” One of the therapist’s connections in New York put Benefiel in touch with Aarne Anton at The American Primitive Gallery. When they arranged to meet, Anton asked where Benefiel developed his photographs. “I said, ‘No, those are drawings.” And he said, ‘That’s it. Done. You want a show in September?’ He even moved someone else’s show and put up mine.”
Go Back To Heroin, Coltrane
That was 1996, the year Charles Benefiel’s drawings turned into art. Suddenly, he was in shows. People knew his art. People were buying his art. More importantly, but inexplicably, people were connecting to his art. “I really liked that people appreciated them and that they could relate to them,” Benefiel explains. “But there’s something weird about walking into a show and you have all these drawings of broken dolls that belonged to your grandmother that you put together. For me, it’s like walking in and seeing people look at your dirty underwear. It’s like, ‘Euh!’”
Ultimately, the human connection was what made the celebrity side of Benefiel’s artistic life worthwhile. “I’ll never forget, I was at the Outsider Art Fair in New York, and this one kid who was in a major battle with heroin, walked up to one of my drawings and he was like, ‘I know this. I’ve been there. I’ve done this.’ To know that you’re communicating with those people is the most important thing in the world.”
But it takes pain and struggle to evoke that kind of emotion through a piece of art. With the validation of the art world, Benefiel’s obsessive-compulsive behavior went into overdrive. “For ten solid years, I was drawing and I got into a number of museum shows, but my personal life was in complete shambles. When you focus on drawing for seventeen hours a day, and OCD really takes over mind and body, you lose scope of what’s going on in your life. You can become very agitated. Your entire life now revolves around the ritual of making work, and it makes you literally crazy. I’ve always likened it to people telling John Coltrane that it’s better that he go back to heroine to make jazz.”
In 2006 and 2007 Benefiel went through an excruciating, drawn-out breakup with his companion, parted ways with a band he was managing because he was too sick to work with them, sought outpatient therapy in Pittsburgh, and, to add physical pain to mental anguish, he was hit by a bus. “I thought everything was kind of over.”
But misfortune sometimes has a way of wiping the slate clean. A friend gave him an opportunity to manage a studio warehouse that took over two city blocks. He jumped at the chance to make a change. Art, at least in the sense of creating it for public consumption, had never been Benefiel’s goal. He was weary of it. As a kid, he had starting drawing to give his OCD a controlled release. But drawing had become an agent of his OCD, consuming his entire life. He stayed in Philly for five years before moving back to the West Coast to settle in San Diego. By then, he finally had a life he was content with: a girlfriend who had kids he could care for as a family and a job working with the San Diego Museum of Art’s event planning team. He was close enough to enjoy the art scene, but removed enough to keep his illness in check. He was in control.
And then, six months ago, Benefiel suddenly went into cardiac arrest in the middle of a San Diego coffee shop, and before he knew what had happened, he fell to the floor, dead.
The Experience of Being Dead
“I laid there for 12 minutes. The paramedics had hit me with the paddles five or six times, and I was dead.” Benefiel recounts the experience with equal parts confidence and awe. “I remember the experience of being dead, and once you experience that, you realize how much of this world is made by your mind. When I died, everything was taken away. I literally felt my mind and my body granulate. It was over before I even knew it. And the only reason why I can remember death now is I actually felt my consciousness click back on when they brought me up and into a coma.” Piece by piece, Benefiel’s hospital room, and his life, rematerialized into his awareness. Despite being unconscious for the entire experience, he cites with conviction his girlfriend’s voice as his reason for returning from the coma.
“I thought I had a full life, but there was always something that wasn’t there and when I came into this family with my girlfriend, I realized that this is what I’d always really wanted.” Benefiel had convinced himself that art was behind him, but when faced with a choice between giving in to death or coming back to life, he knew that he had shunned what he was greatest at because of the sickness he associated with it, and he realized that now his art could do more than just exist with his new family life: his new life was the key that would allow his art to thrive.
“So by regulating how I would be working on it–limited hours, out of sight of the kids–I could really begin to experiment again visually.”
This practicality is the key to Benefiel’s lifestyle shift. For the ghost town resident and the gutterpunk and boy on a bike, life had been full and fast from day one. His brief glimpse of death taught him this: “I have to tell you that death is absolutely not scary. But what you have now is what you work with. Do not put things off. It’s all about immersing yourself in that which you do not know in order to make yourself stronger and to really breathe that magic of life every day because it will be gone.”
For the first time in his life, Benefiel has the perspective to prioritize his own needs rather than turn everything over to art, or community, or adventure—whichever form his compulsion tried to assume–with nothing left over to live in but the remnants of a self.