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Artist Eugene Bennett leaves legacy of talent, community

Renowned Jacksonville artist Eugene Bennett died Tuesday evening at Medford's Rogue Valley Medical Center after suffering complications from pneumonia.

Bennett, 86, long had been regarded as the foremost artist in Southern Oregon. His work has been shown at the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the San Francisco Museum of Art and in Alba, Italy.

In addition to his artistic talents, Bennett's sense of humor, keen wit and "easy intimacy" made him a personal favorite with many, said Angela Warren, director of performing arts for Britt Festivals.

"He is just irreplaceable," said Warren. "His is not a face or a smile or a laugh that you'll ever forget."

In the 1990s Bennett was stricken with a rare disorder that caused involuntary spasms in his eyes. The incurable condition made it difficult for Bennett to keep his eyes open to paint. In 2008, Bennett suffered a stroke. Bennett died in his sleep at RVMC following a brief illness, Warren said.

"He was so deeply rooted here," said Warren. "He leaves a legacy in this community that he loved so well."

The walls inside Bennett's home studio in Jacksonville, created from an 1850s brewery he remodeled back in the early 1960s, were covered with colorful collections that represent six decades of work. Britt Festivals and Taste of Ashland posters resided alongside his many collages, oils, drawings, photographs, sculpture and assemblages.

Known for the light and color of his landscapes, Bennett also created art using poles, some of which were on display at the Seattle World's Fair in 1962, which combined ordinary objects such as tacks, chicken wire, roofing nails and colored foil.

Bennett created three posters for Britt Festivals. One of his favorite vantage points for painting or sketching was sitting on the grassy hillside of the Britt grounds where he could watch the musicians practicing, Warren said.

"He particularly loved the pianists," she said.

Born on Dec. 20, 1921, in Central Point, Bennett credited former Washington Elementary School teacher Alice Cromar in Medford with being his first art mentor. Bennett also had a passion for music, and praised another mentor, piano teacher John Reisacher.

Bennett attended the University of Oregon to study music until World War II interrupted. He entered the U.S. Navy in 1943. When he was discharged in 1946, Bennett decided to forgo music as a career in favor of art.

"He said his art palette was easier to carry than a grand piano," said Bennett's friend and fellow Jacksonville resident Marjorie Edens.

Accepted as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947, Bennett used his G.I. Bill to pay for tuition.

Later Bennett taught art at New Trier High School in Winnetka, north of Chicago. But he became homesick for Oregon. He returned for good in 1958 and became a founding member of the Rogue Gallery & Art Center in 1960.

Bennett influenced generations of children through private instruction and as an artist and teacher for the Medford School District's Artists in Education Program.

Six years ago he founded the Eugene Bennett art scholarship for Jackson County youths through the Oregon Community Foundation. Bennett made sure his art scholarship was a permanent endowment, said Amy Cuddy, OCF program officer.

"So it will continue to support art students for years to come," Cuddy said.

To date 20 local students have received tuition awards to attend various colleges throughout the United States, she said.

Bennett joined forces with his friend, the town's famed historian Robby Collins, who died in 2003, to help protect and enhance Jacksonville, Edens said.

"When they restored the U.S. Bank, Gene painted a scene on the safe at the request of Robby Collins," Edens said.

Former Jacksonville Mayor Jim Lewis described Bennett as a "cultural giant."

"He was as close to a Renaissance man as anyone I've ever known," Lewis said.

Funeral arrangements through Conger-Morris are pending. Memorial services will be announced at a later date.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Artist Eugene Bennett leaves legacy of talent, community