Kansas City Artist was Master of the Heartland Thomas Hart Benton brushed aside the prevailing modernism of his time to create naturalistic scenes of America's heartland. From his Kansas City studio, he painted giant murals that gave prominence to the working-class people and small farmers of Middle America.
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Kansas City Artist was Master of the Heartland

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Kansas City Artist was Master of the Heartland

Kansas City Artist was Master of the Heartland

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Chadwick all week here in Kansas City.

We've been asking people what it means to be in the middle. A lot of them talk about the heart of America, and that phrase spoken here does settle naturally.

If Kansas City is a cathedral for what it is to be American, Thomas Hart Benton painted the ceiling.

I drove over to the Roanoke neighborhood, where he used to live, to talk with people who knew him.

On my last visit here, I stood outside with Tom's grandson, Anthony Gude, also an artist. He'd driven up from his farm hours away - his first time back in almost 20 years.

Mr. ANTHONY GUDE (Artist): Not having been in the studio in all these years, after my grandparents died, the house went through quite a few changes and so it reminds of what it used to be, but it's so different. But the studio remains basically very intact. It hasn't changed since the day he died. And so to me, that's where the spirits or ghosts, if you will find them, will be.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mr. GUDE: Well, the place seems a lot smaller than I remember. Of course, oftentimes when you're a child, your memories of locations are often far larger than when you actually go see them again. The smell of oil paint has kind of diminished over the years, but he used to keep that old wood stove going. And all the tools and everything that he had in here, you know, were basically constantly used.

CHADWICK: All those things people say about being in the middle, about work and steadiness, Tom Benton was an artist in exactly that way. In the early '30s, his stylized figures and mural size scale got him Time magazine's first cover story on an artist. Styles change, Tom didn't. He wasn't new anymore when he and Rita, his wife and business partner, came back here after 20 years in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: He liked to whistle when he worked or he played harmonica - that's him, that's Tom Benton.

The grandson, Anthony Gude, is studying the now quiet space, a union of studio and workshop, saws, chisels, packing crates and paint. An eight-foot easel holds a large blank canvass partly covered with a drop cloth, as Tom left it. The air smells abandoned but the light is still good.

Did you use to come here when he was painting?

Mr. GUDE: Yes, I would come in - I'd watch him paint, often dabble with drawings or play with clay. And several times I posed for some of the figures in some of murals they did, namely the Joplin mural was one and my family posed for the country music mural. He was very particular about making sure that the musicians in the mural were all playing the same chord. So any musician would know, if you play a violin or a guitar or the dulcimer, you know that the hands are in the right position and so all the musicians in the painting are all definitely playing the same chord.

CHADWICK: That mural was for Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and we'll come back to it.

But first to a good friend, John Callison, often invited for dinner parties here. Tom and Rita loved food and a drink and a table of people.

Mr. JOHN CALLISON (Kansas City Broker): You can never get a word inchwise. I mean Rita would sit at one end of the table and Tom the other, and Tom would be telling stories and Rita would say, now, Tom, you know that's not right; you're not telling that right. And Tom would say, woman, you shut up. I got the floor. But you could never get a word an edgewise because they just kept the ball in the air. And the stories - they didn't have to make up stories, they were always true-life stories, you know, I mean things that happened along the way and they were usually funny.

CHADWICK: But the dinners were also artfully managed by Rita. In the afternoon, she'd walk out back to the studio, go through Tom's most recent work, pick pieces to display where the guests and patrons would see them. An authentic Thomas Hart Benton in the Benton home? He didn't need a gallery. He had Rita and this place.

John Callison bought some of those paintings and stayed close with the family. So he was there that night in 1975 when Tom had just completed that mural for country music.

Mr. CALLISON: About 7:15, he went out and sat down to sign the mural and had a massive heart attack and died. In fact, his watch was stopped at 7:15, where it had hit the floor.

CHADWICK: And the mural never was signed. Rita lived a few months more, and then she too was gone. Thirty years later on, the clapboard and shingle main building still seems like someone's home. Tom and Rita's things are here: couches, chairs, rugs, an entry table where I dump a gear bag until the curator says don't. His name is Steve Sitton, a Missouri historian. He must be used to visitors trying to use the furniture because the place just invites you in, as the art does.

Mr. STEVE SITTON (Curator): He was not painting necessarily the big events in American history or the famous people. His great, great uncle, Senator Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri, is not included in the mural in the Missouri state capitol. Tom said that mules did more for the development of the state than Senator Benton ever did.

CHADWICK: Curator Steve Sitton at the Thomas Hart Benton home in Kansas City, Missouri. And there on the wall a copy of a painting - Rita in a double portrait with Tom, probably in their 30s, and I think a woman would want her husband to paint her this way, that interest in her eye and his, paint her just like this, if he could.

And back here at Union Station, we spoke with an art appraiser here, a man named Burton Dunbar. It's not uncommon, he says, a call like the one a few weeks ago: a family has some Bentons, can he come take a look?

Now, think about how Rita sold those paintings: straight out of the studio, into the dinner party, and then home with a guest, right? There are Tom Benton paintings that he saw and Rita saw and the people who got them still see and no one else ever has.

Burton Dunbar has seen some of these paintings with Tom's price notations on the back - fifteen hundred dollars.

Dr. BURTON DUNBAR (Art Appraiser): Yeah, you want to do that. You kind of want to shout and say, this is the Benton-Benton that we've been looking for and this is, I know, Benton at his finest hour.

CHADWICK: Those paintings now are worth millions, some of them. Even so, the appraiser told us most of the time his clients listen to his valuations and they thank him. And in Kansas City, they keep their Bentons.

And you can see Tom Benton's work and the work of his grandson, Anthony Gude - it's worth a look - at our Web site, npr.org.

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