by Dennis Dalman
A rather moody, windswept watercolor painting of an old, inoperable Danish windmill recently won for Mick Benson of Sartell a prestigious Gold-Standard award.
The honor was given to him by the Red River Watercolor Society’s National Exhibition in Fargo, N.D.
When Benson noticed a contest announcement in an art magazine, a rush of nostalgia filled him because of the name and place: Red River. When he was a child, he lived only three blocks from the Red River. His late father, M.J., owned the biggest lumber company in Grand Forks, N.D. He had a crew of 12 men building grain elevators all across the Dakotas.
Nostalgic memories helped Benson make up his mind, and he decided to enter the Red River contest.
Benson entered two watercolor paintings, one of an old barn with cottonwoods, the other the one of the windmill.
The winning entry, which Benson calls “The Borglum Windmill,” had its origins years ago when Benson and his wife, Jessie, were in Denmark. One day, he was driving around in his Volkswagen he’d just bought in Germany. Near the North Sea, he noticed to his right a windmill high up on a ridge and took the next gravel road to try to get closer to it. And there it was, right above him: a very old windmill, now quite forlorn-looking, and beneath it a windmill keeper’s house with its straw roof, also forlorn, abandoned. Intrigued by the site, Benson grabbed his camera and took photos from every angle.
Later, during supper with some Danes, Benson told them about the windmill. A Danish elder asked him if he knew that across from the windmill is a forested area where the ancestors of famed sculptor Gutzon Borglum had lived. Borglum is the man who carved Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, one of the most famous and instantly recognizable monuments on the planet.
Benson was intrigued by the “Dakota” connection.
Back in the United States, Benson did research on the Borglums.
Later, using the photos he shot, he painted the picture of the Borglum windmill. He created the work using a 20 x 28 sheet of D’Arches-brand watercolor paper, using Winsor Newton watercolor. The result is a moody landscape with scowling clouds, thrashing tree branches, the keeper’s home on the right and stair steps from the home leading high up to the windmill. The painting seems to be animated by wind and a swirling, almost dizzying motion. The colors (browns, tans, grays and whites) and the textures are painted with a brisk brio of brushstrokes and wet-on-wet smudges of paint. Viewers can feel as if they are “there,” suddenly being drawn into the scene, slightly chilly from the North Sea salty air.
“The Borglum Windmill” is one of 49 paintings on display in the exhibition. Entries came from among the most superb watercolorists in the nation.
When the painting was due for judging, Benson happened to be in the hospital getting a pacemaker installed. A friend, Jim Olson, agreed to drive the painting up to Fargo, and all was well.
In his long life as an artist, Benson has always loved doing landscapes the most. Abandoned barns are another favorite. Lately, he’s launched into painting “luscious floral” works.
Born in Worthington, Benson and his family lived in many places (Grand Forks, Bloomington, Alexandria). After graduation from St. Cloud State University, he taught art classes for many years in high schools – two years in Windom, 18 years in Albany – and at workshops far and wide. He is now retired, as is wife Jessie, who taught sociology at SCSU.