Meeting a legend is hard on the bladder
It's one of the great perks of this reporting gig — getting to meet folks you've long held in high esteem.
Sometimes, to be honest, it can be a bit of a disappointment. Other times it can surpass already-elevated expectations.
Meeting Jacksonville's beloved artist, Eugene Bennett, this week was definitely one of the latter experiences.
Mr. Bennett grew up in the Rogue Valley studying his two passions, piano and art. After a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he was accepted as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947, returned to Oregon in 1958, and became a founding member of the Rogue Gallery & Art Center in 1960.
Long regarded as the foremost artist in Southern Oregon, Bennett was a featured artist on the television show Oregon Art Beat. He was honored with the Governor's Arts Award for work that has "significantly contributed to the growth and development of Oregon's cultural life." A feature-length independent film, "Eugene Bennett: Portrait of an Artist," premiered at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in 2002. I could go on. But suffice it to say the 86-year-old is a local art legend.
That's not why I have a crush on him though. Don't get me wrong, I think his art is brilliant. But so is his wit. In our rare telephone interviews over the years the man has made me giggle so hard I couldn't track my thoughts.
I love a man who makes me belly-laugh.
So when the opportunity came to link his generosity in funding the Eugene Bennett Art Scholarship for Jackson County students through the Oregon Community Foundation art scholarships, and the town's honoring their local legend at an art show at the U.S. Hotel, I was determined to shanghai him into a face-to-face interview.
I figured it would be better to ask for forgiveness than permission, so I just sort of descended upon him Tuesday morning.
"Hi, Mr. Bennett! I'm right around the corner at the art show," I said. "Can I come talk with you?"
He wasn't expecting company. He was still in his bathrobe. Pushy and without shame, that's me.
"It will just be an informal chat," I promised. Little did I know how informal, or personal, things would get.
I blame the doctor for putting me on diuretics. I'd already hit Jacksonville's public restroom before hitting the art show, where I'd perused the work of 20 local artists — and one glorious Eugene Bennett oil titled "Influence of Chicago." But as I was dancing over historic bricks on my way to his circa 1950s brewery-turned-home/studio, I knew my first question would involve directions to his powder room.
As he apologized for his jammies, I apologized for my need to hit the head. He was grace personified. I was mortified. Because this buffle-headed widgeon danced in and out of the poor man's bathroom during our hour-long interview like a middle-aged Jill-in-the-box. Why didn't I time that tiny white pill better? The waterworks only last about four hours.
"Diuretics," I finally confessed.
"Ah! Say no more," he said, laughing. "I know how that is."
Bennett knows too much of what doctors can fix, and what they can't. In the 1990s he was stricken with a rare disorder. The condition causes involuntary spasms that make it impossible to keep one's eyes open. There is no cure.
As we sat in his gallery looking at his many decades of work, I asked whether he still paints.
"I do," he said. "But I'm not producing much."
In 2008, Bennett suffered a stroke. He turned in his car keys. It was the right thing to do but the loss of independence is difficult.
The hardest part was ending impromptu drives into the country to paint.
"I like to be out in it," he said.
I told him about my grandfather. And my mother. How they'd made the same decision after their strokes. I also told him how I liked to take folks for rides in the country.
We both laughed as we struggled to figure out the exact date of his stroke. Or even Tuesday's date. He blamed the after-effects of his stroke. I blamed the cumulative effects of five concussions. And being all twitterpated at meeting a local legend.
The laughing made me have to go — again. My final trip emptied the meager TP roll. I was loathe to invade his privacy by snooping in bathroom cupboards. And guilt stricken at the notion of leaving him, or another guest, stranded after I left. To tell? Or not tell?
Red faced and eye-rolling, I fessed up.
"I'm so glad you told me," he said with great sincerity. "Do you know who was the last person who told me that I was out of toilet paper?"
His mother? A childhood playmate? Some other nitwit reporter?
"Ginger Rogers," he crowed.
I remain mortified. But in very good company.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail email@example.com.