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We Live Here: The Unplanned Art Community at Benton Plaza

“I started dreaming about my art until I realized I could draw what I was dreaming,” says Ruth Van Order.

Standing grand and magnificent the Neo-Renaissance styled Benton Plaza in Corvallis Oregon is testimony to many cultural and social changes over the years. Formerly a hotel and now a repurposed mixed use building, Benton Plaza blends small businesses and social service programs on its lower floors while offering supported housing opportunities on its upper floors. But this mundane description could easily disguise the incredible stories that happen inside the old building. These are stories of ingenious artists who are discretely creating ingenious works of art in an unplanned art community.

What began as a casual conversation with Patrick Collier, an artist and culture writer, in the old hotel lobby, soon turned into a revelation. As one thing led to another, it was evident that a large number of residents are engaged in extraordinary creative practices. Benton Plaza houses some 55 residents, and some 20 of these identify as artists. There are many types of intentional programs supporting cultural opportunities, from housing communities for aging creatives to artist residencies to programs such as creative art centers and beyond. But what sets Benton Plaza apart is that art happened here without built in supports. Housed inside the historic building is a creative pool of artists for whom art came organically outside the formal system. Their stories are of journeys sprung from their unique individual backgrounds into the world of visual art.

For the past two years ArtWorks has operated an art gallery and studio in Benton Plaza. ArtWorks is a program of Collaborative Employment Innovations or (CEI). CEI is recognized state-wide as a progressive agent, linking job seekers with disabilities to employment opportunities. It became clear that it would be interesting to curate an exhibit that focused on artwork created organically within the building. Many of those included in the exhibit were introduced to ArtWorks Gallery.

Ruth Van Order with her drawings.

Ruth Van Order with her drawings.

Within an extensive pile of graph papers and scotch tape, artist Ruth Van Order realizes an Elysian world where “education should be offered without charge”. In her primary piece ‘Design for Future Utopian Living’ Van Order gives us a blueprint of her intentions for designing a community that thrives on her values of mutual understanding and balancing the economy without money. Her enormous map/grid is created in sections in her apartment, which may be smaller than the work itself. She laminates layers of her map as it takes shape from her imagination and forms a structure which is quilt like. Her diagram references aspects of her experience as a professional care giver for over 40 years.

Speaking on her style, Van Order says, “I like asymmetrical balance and pay attention to detail. My work often represents the color I like and the patterns I see.” A retired nurse and a mother of four, Van Order’s work is that of a deft cartographer. The maps are a reflection of herself as she explains, “this map is me and I’ll be working on this map until the day I die.”

Reed Steinle's sculptures

Reed Steinle’s sculptures

Much like Van Order, Reed Steinle is in tune with the passage of time. Steinle moved to Benton Plaza after a life of drugs and one very serious motorcycle crash in which he lost a leg. “This place is my sanctuary, I lived a large life” says Steinle with a chuckle. Known locally as ReedyMon, Steinle lives on the fifth floor of Benton Plaza. “I’m intuitive, and to me that’s what my Zen practice is. I open up and let the music flow”. Steinle uses music and poetry to express the chaos that rages in his mind. It is like his stream of consciousness. “My music, it used to be noise, I’m working on making it more harmonious, as opposed to noise, I’m getting better at controlling sounds, it’s not quite musical, its more outsider, I need the chaos to contrast the poetry”, explains Steinle. In addition to his music he is represented in the exhibit by two abstract paintings and two small carvings. The seclusion of Benton Plaza has given his mind the time he needed to forego the mayhem he had in his life and replace it with unpremeditated art, as Steinle says, “My abstracts all have cellular motifs, my carvings end up being whatever comes out of the wood. I guess what I can say about this place is that it has given me time and I have filled up that time.”

Victor Nyland, "Toxic Viral Contagion Phenomenon."

Victor Nyland, “Toxic Viral Contagion Phenomenon.”

The mood in Victor Nyland’s painting is psychedelic and replete with cosmic allusion. His painted intricate patterns exude a dream like 3-D effect on wooden panels. His tryst with painting began while living under a bridge in Salem, Oregon for over 5 years. “That’s where I started painting my walking sticks. I got the hang of painting, and then I stopped until I got in here,” says Nyland. A few years after arriving at Benton Plaza, Nyland picked up a few cans and began painting them, after completing a few he purchased 4 wood panels and painted those and he stopped. It is as if he took one breath to express his creative zeal and then it left him one fine morning. He mentions that he doesn’t feel the need to paint anymore.

Amy Turner, "Untitled", Drawing.

Amy Turner, “Untitled”, Drawing.

While Victor Nyland’s efforts were specific to various periods in his life, Amy Turner created constantly throughout her life. Turner was a long-time resident of Benton Plaza who sadly passed away two years ago. Turner was well known to many in Corvallis as she was often seen around town sporting an enormous bouffant wig, or wearing one of many bespangled hats. Turner had many occupations, perhaps best known as a hair dresser she also worked briefly as a “Dance Girl” at Benton Plaza, known as Hotel Benton at the time. Unknown to most, Turner was a prolific artist who worked in a variety of media. Her drawings in this exhibit are dense, crammed with expressive cartoon character like faces and repeating motifs. Currently plans are being made to study her entire body of work, all of which adds an exciting element to the exhibit.

Rick Kleinoski, "Homeless Journals."

Rick Kleinoski, “Homeless Journals.”

If Amy Turner’s creative life was lived in private, Rick Kleinoski has adapted to the technical infrastructure which shapes most of our lives. Via his website and Facebook page Kleinoski shares his creative preoccupations. Kleinoski, a photographer, says that he has been able to put some of the “missing pieces” of his life together while living at Benton Plaza. His inspiration are the many faces of the houseless people of Corvallis, Oregon, partly because he lived quite a while on the streets. Speaking of his motivation for photography, Kleinoski says, “I take pictures of the things I want to take pictures of, of nature and street people, people going about their daily lives, and events, store fronts, historic buildings, and architecture.” His goal is to capture the essence of the neighborhood wherein lies the true character of a city. Benton Plaza has given him a community to thrive in, and to express his individualism, creativity.

Andew Fisher with his work. Unplanned art community

Andew Fisher with his work.

Something similar has happened too for writer Andrew Fisher. “Benton Plaza has been supporting, it’s safe with enough time for me to pursue my creative goals,” says Fisher. Here, Fisher churns out a mix of philosophical musing and science fiction. Artist and culture writer Patrick Collier describe Fisher’s work as, “Dense texts with familiar words strung along a readable syntax. It’s as if metaphors pile up on top of each other, and it is because of this layered opacity, combined with his preference for exhibiting them in stacks, that I’m perfectly fine with looking at his work as sculpture as well as literature.”

Curating this exhibit has led to one surprise after another, plans for the exhibit were well underway when we were led to the work of Turner In search of additional works from the artists who had committed to the exhibit, we were informed of Turner’s work. Fortunately she had given 2 or 3 of her drawings and mixed media pieces to the social workers at Benton Plaza as keepsakes. When her daughter picked up Turner’s belongings one social worker captured 30 or so images from a larger cache of works on their phone. So vast was the array of works that currently a museum curator is looking at beginning the necessary research which hopefully ensure that Turner’s creative contributions will be valued and shared with many. This is often the narrative of artists specifically those within the genre of outsider art. Places like Benton Plaza help create the structures that not only allow for the creation of art, but also its eventual discovery and preservation.