The Ghost of Tom Benton

AMONG THE PLEASURES of research is encountering the unexpectedly profound. The photo above was taken yesterday at Thomas Hart Benton’s studio in Kansas City, Mo., which (according to tour guide Evadene, below) remains just as he left it upon his death nearly 38 years ago. The assortment of things on his desk gave me chills: his pipe, some eye bolts, a magnifying glass, razor blades, tubes of paint, and music manuscript paper with a melody written in pencil. The desk itself is supported by the legs of a barbecue tripod. Benton made the studio out of one half of the carriage house behind the home at 3616 Belleview. He had an 8- by 12-foot panel of windowpanes installed to catch the northern light, which is particularly beautiful in winter. Benton died here on Jan. 19, 1975, after completing — but not signing – -his last mural, “The Sources of Country Music.”

BENTON AND HIS FAMILY lived here from 1939 to 1975. The residence is now the “Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site,” run by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and for four bucks you can get a sense of what home life was like for Missouri’s most famous artist. If you take the formal tour, the padlock to the carriage house will be removed and you can see where Benton painted many of his most famous works.

THE STAIRWELL winds around the fireplace in the center of the house. The kitchen is through the dining room, and if you ask politely you might get a copy of Rita Benton’s spaghetti recipe. The small table to the left of the dining table served as the bar. There were a number of spirits represented, but no bourbon; Evadene said Benton drank it all.

THE SECOND FLOOR landing seemed the warmest place in the house. Perhaps it was the copy of the early portrait Benton painted of himself and Rita at the beach, which hoevers over a collection of National Geographics and a 1970s color television. It was Sunday, so I half expected the “Wonderful World of Disney” on the old set. I was told, however, that Benton didn’t watch much television.

BENEATH A WINTER SKY, the Benton home presides fortress-like over a quiet residential neighborhood. Parking is street only. Like many American artists, Benton — the son of a congressman and nephew of a legendary Missouri senator — once studied in Paris. Throwing off the shackles of the academy, however, Benton established himself as a leading proponent of  Regionalism (along with Grant Wood and Kansan John Steuart Curry).  Benton’s work, which often depicts the dark side of American history as a rustic form of Greek tragedy, is still inspiring debate. For those interested in visiting his home and studio, here’s a link to the site. When you go, ask for Evadene.


An eagle, finally

AFTER SEVERAL attempts to shoot (photographically) a group of eagles that have taken up residence northeast of the Emporia State campus, I finally succeeded this afternoon. Of at least five eagles in a half-mile area, the one above appears to be the largest. It was circling overhead while what appeared to be three juveniles were perched in trees overlooking partially frozen ponds.

Christmas flock

WHILE LOOKING for some bald eagles that have taken up residence at a pond north of the Emporia State campus, I spooked these Candians. They were obviously wary and mistook me and the long lens on my Canon 60D for something more sinister. Saw no eagles today, but did spot some a few days ago. Alas, I captured no eagle photos worthy of reproducing here.

Pocket journalism

HERE’S MY iPhone. It’s last year’s model, a 4s, not a 5, so I can’t count myself as among the Apple faithful. But it has gotten me thinking about all of the gadgets that a smartphone replaces (or can substitute for in a pinch). There are at least seven by my count, not including apps: 1) telephone/answering machine; 2) internet terminal/fax/teletype machine; 3) digital camera; 4) camcorder; 5) audio recorder; 6) watch/alarm/stopwatch; and 7) GPS/transponder. The list doesn’t include non-electronic aids, such as calendars and address books, or things used only for entertainment, such as an MP3 player. Smartphones in general, and iPhones in particular, have become indispensible  tools for writers, journalists, and researchers.

I have to admit a certain nostalgia for the old stuff. Hell, I have a closet full of old technology, from a manual typewriter to cassette recorders to a 35mm SLR (a Canon F1n, which went with me to Japan and back). But, the iPhone is an entire closet full of stuff in a shirt pocket. Is it the right tool for every job? No. But the camera in the iPhone produces images with a higher resolution than many DSLRs made up until recently. A New York Times photographer used only his iPhone for some prize-winning photos last year.

It’s easy to see where this is going. Smartphones already pack more technological punch than could be found in an entire newsroom of not so many years ago. Backpack journalism is a phrase that’s been bandied about since the digital revolution. Even that seems dated. What we have now is shirtpocket journalism.

Note: My iPhone is black, but I chose an Otter case that seemed particularly rugged and in colors that reminded me of scuba gear.