Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary | May 19
WORDS F. Douglass Schatz
As a native Nashvillian and erstwhile local art enthusiast, I remember Steve Benneyworth’s sculptures well, from his studio on Murphy Road, to his outdoor sculpture Web in Hillsboro Village. Known for his gentle demeanor and humorous quips, he was always a fixture at art functions and gallery openings around town.
My earliest memory of him was not on the art scene though; it was when he came to repair a house I happened to be squatting in during my college years. Like most artists I know, he had a day job, and in his case, it was the renovation and repair of houses in town. In Nashville during the 70s and 80s a lot of artists in town had ‘repair’ companies, though most apparently only for tax purposes because they never seemed to be fixing anything. Steve, however, made a living at it and was able to finance and produce his large-scale sculptures. More important, his vocation informed his avocation in terms of materials and technique—he was able to channel his construction work in concrete and steel into abstracted and massive sculptural forms.
Benneyworth was one of the first contemporary sculptors in Nashville that worked entirely in abstract or non- objective large-scale outdoor sculpture. His abstractions using scale and mass seemed to be the outlier in a town versed in realism and statuary. His imagery was often organic in form with hints of an underlying pattern of science-based structure.
At the time, his work was somewhat challenging to the Nashville community because of its non-objective nature and use of non-traditional art materials. There is a certain truth in materials that the general public tends to accept as art—bronze, clay, stone, and more recently steel; so it is no surprise that his work was overlooked in Nashville during the early years. Often, the community didn’t quite know what to make of his work. Web, the aforementioned piece in Hillsboro Village, had, among people that I knew, many descriptive
guesses about its origins—catcher’s mitt, ChexTM Mix, and spider web were terms that I heard most often. However one described it, there was no mistaking the creator; Benneyworth’s sculptures had their own look and feel that were unique in Nashville at the time.
The forms themselves were inspired by math and science, two lifelong interests of Benneyworth’s. He had two major themes in his outdoor sculpture: gravity and organic form. He often used gravity as a way to connect the elements of the works, distributing mass and manipulating balance to support the large geometric forms. In addition, these forms provided visual tension that was palpable, given the physical weight of the pieces involved.
The organic forms that he made were perhaps his best-known works—they used an underlying mathematical computation and grid system as a starting point for the forms. Through these structures, Benneyworth said that he was exploring the possibilities of “surface and its underlying mechanics” to create his arrangements.
His organic works often had a figurative quality, resembling bones or joints. The surface texture and coloration of the concrete contrasted with his use of steel to create a dynamic effect that seemed to reinforce these connotations. Those textures in the work were interesting because they didn’t hide the process of making or obscure the materials that he was using. His use of concrete was unapologetic and was intended to show off the material. Many sculptors are fascinated by the tools of the trade—cranes, lifts, steel, concrete—so it is no surprise that Benneyworth’s construction work and sculpture dovetailed so completely.
Though he passed away in 2014, Benneyworth’s sculpture will be exhibited on May 19 at Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary and will be available for purchase in an auction. Proceeds will go to the Steve Benneyworth Fund for the Arts to help underwrite visual and performing arts programming at Owl’s Hill.
For more information, visit www.owlshill.org.