San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Country Club Exhibit to Feature U.S. Painter

ON May 31, the Costa Rican CountryClub in the western suburb of Escazú willhost the opening night of an exhibit ofMary E. Benton’s engaging oil paintings.If the name Mary E. Benton is not yetfamiliar in Costa Rica, it is because thisartist prefers anonymity, and would ratherpaint than waste time promoting herself.Until now, only an exclusive group offriends and diplomats had seen her workshere. This will change when Mary Benton’spaintings finally go public on Tuesday.Her first Costa Rican exhibit promisesto be as captivating as her previous show inLima, Peru – a prestigious group exhibitentitled “Noche de Arte” – in April 2002.Like U.S. photographer DorotheaLange, of the Great Depression era, Bentonrecords the faces of a faceless class. Shepaints poor, old, forgotten people – peoplewhose frowns and sighs matter to no one.Her subjects are the sun-scorched campesinosof Costa Rica or the deprived indigenouspeople of Guatemala and Peru.In her works, Benton gives voices tothe maids and gardeners toiling silently inour homes. Street beggars we usually manageto ignore suddenly command our attention.Their stories of sorrow and humilitybeckon acknowledgment. Viewers will nodoubt come out of her exhibit humbled bythe hardships of others. But in the wrinkledfurrows of old age, we also detect signs ofwisdom and determination. In the colorfultraditional dress of the Incas and Mayas,we see pride and dignity.Benton’s paintings are not crowdpleasers; they are eye openers. Her portraitsare not pretty to look at, but rather were createdto challenge our comfortable world.This is a talented artist worth discovering,as much for her humanist message as forher amazing brush techniques. Her obsessionwith details reflects an early training asa classical art historian. The modernist’smotto “less is more” leaves this artist cold.As a result, we see in her portraits some ofthe most intricate and accurate representationsof indigenous textiles on canvas.When asked about her sources of inspiration,Benton replies, half jokingly, “I amprobably one of the few artists paintingportraits today who can claim that Castro’ssocialism drove me to it!”“I was living in Havana in the late1990s and began studying oil painting witha wonderful Cuban artist,” she explains. “Iquickly tired of painting the limited varietyof bruised fruits and vegetables or the threekinds of flowers I could regularly find… Isoon discovered I had a much greaterinterest in painting the people around me.“I also came to realize that, unlikefruits, vegetables and flowers, people growmuch more interesting as they age. In someways, their faces are like landscapes,formed by laughter and eroded by suffering…I discovered, too, as I painted that Iwould develop a very close, almost spiritualconnection with my subjects, even if Ihad encountered them casually on a streetcorner. Some of these subjects I had tocoax onto canvas; others practically paintedthemselves, using me as a medium.”Benton may be a newcomer to theCosta Rican art scene, but she is no strangerto the diplomatic crowd. In this milieu, sheis better known as the discreet diplomat’swife. Her husband Douglas Barnes is thechargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy.Barnes’ posting in Costa Rica is comingto an end this summer. Before leaving, thecouple would like to leave a lasting gift totheir Costa Rican friends. Both are avidnaturalists and supporters of the Associationfor the Conservation and Developmentof the Mountains of Escazú (CODECE), anonprofit conservation and sustainable developmentgroup. Sales from Benton’sexhibit will be donated to the organizationto help finance its projects in Escazú.In addition to Benton’s portraits, theshow at the Country Club will include paintingsand sculptures by Max Rojas, DeirdreHyde, Luis Chacón and Alexandre Céalac.The exhibit will be open to the public onlyon opening night, May 31, from 7-9 p.m.For more information on CODECE,visit (Spanish only) or

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