Gallery Celebrates 25 Years With Two Accomplished Artists

The year 2018 ushers in the Ashby-Hodge Gallery’s 25th anniversary. The Gallery on the campus of Central Methodist University in Fayette currently boasts more than 1,000 paintings and other pieces of art, which are rotated in and out of the three galleries, along with additional works by other artists on display.

The first show of the 25th anniversary celebration, called “Winter Delights” includes two quite different artists. The works of painter and illustrator Charles Banks Wilson (1918-2013), a close friend of Missouri’s noted artist Thomas Hart Benton, take up two of the three gallery rooms. The third room showcases a photo exposé of Cuba, created by 1966 graduate of Central and former professor of photography Jerry Benner, who is most famous for his series of Missouri courthouses, featured in 2014 at the gallery.

The current show will run from Sunday, January 28, through March 15, with an artist reception from 1:30 – 4:30 p.m. on the 28th, where Benner will be available to discuss his works and his experience with the Cuban people.

According to Benner, Cuba is a true socialist country. Everyone gets about the equivalent of $40 a month in pesos to spend, plus a ration of food. The money can only be used at the government stores. On the other hand, they have free education through University and free good medical care. Visitors, like the group of photographers and their partners who went to Cuba last January, trade their U.S. dollars into CUCs (each worth about 25 times a peso) but cannot shop at the government store. The Cubans are very poor, but they are all equally very poor.

“We found the people to be friendly and easy to meet,” Benner said. “We had no limitations on where we went and saw little military or police presence.”

In his photography, Benner captures not just the poverty of the Cubans’ lives, but also the joy that often shines through despite their financial condition. His photographs frame the daily life of the Cuban people from laundry to after-school boxing for boys and ballet for girls. One set of photographs depicts the cars driven in the cities. All of them date back to the late 1950s when Castro took over. They are mostly amalgamations of the original automobile and whatever scraps of metal and adaptable Russian car parts the people can find.

One set of pictures introduces the viewers to an elderly lady who lives in an immense house. She grew up there, but the house belongs to the government now. It is in poor shape because no one fixes anything, but she earns a little bit of extra money by letting people wander through the villa.

Another set of photographs introduces an elderly man who moves goods on a sledge over a rough country road. He spoke no English; they spoke no Spanish. As his ox moved the sledge down a bumpy hill and around a sharp corner, the load shifted and the sledge overturned. The handful of photographers who were there put down their cameras and helped the man reclaim his vehicle and his load. He seemed pleased when Benner gave him a CUC as thanks for the photo op.

Benner has been a photographer since he was given a Kodak Brownie camera in 1951. Photography eventually became a way of life for him. He taught photography in the Parkway School District 1973-2000 and at Central Methodist University 2001-2012. He graduated from CMU in 1966 and earned an M.A. in Communications from Saint Louis University.

The other two galleries feature a retrospective of the works of Charles Banks Wilson, painter and illustrator. Because of Wilson’s work, the world has a better understanding of Native American life, especially of the Cherokee Nation.

Wilson was born in Arkansas in 1918 but was raised in Miami, Okla. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago in 1936 to study painting, watercolor, and lithography. He served an apprenticeship with the Chicago Tribune to hone his illustration talents, then went to New York City where he began a career as a book illustrator. He illustrated 22 books, and the current show shares a number of his illustrations from books such as prize-winning classics Treasure Island, Company of Adventures, Henry’s Lincoln, and Mustangs.

He was already a well-known painter when he returned to his beloved Oklahoma to teach at Northeastern A&M College. He established the art department there and served as its chair for 15 years.

Beginning in 1960, Wilson turned to painting full time and during that decade he created murals for the Oklahoma State Capitol, depicting the state’s discovery, frontier trade, Indian immigration, settlement, and overall history. Also hanging in the capitol are life-size portraits of Will Rogers, Sequoyah, Jim Thorpe, and Senator Robert Kerr. He was best known for his paintings of contemporary Indian life.

His mural “The Trapper’s Bride” is among the primary records of the American West’s fur trade. During his life, Wilson was honored with numerous awards, including the first Governor’s Art Award; the Distinguished Service Citation from the University of Oklahoma; Oklahoma Hall of Fame; and the Western Heritage award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

He was also a Fellow of the International Institution of Arts and Letters and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arkansas Arts Council.

A good friend of painter Thomas Hart Benton, Wilson spent many hours with him on sketching trips down the Meramec and other rivers, recording their impressions of the Ozark regions of Missouri. Wilson helped Benton find the Pawnee and Seneca tribespeople to use as models for Benton’s mural at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. Multiple paintings of Benton and his studio are in the current Wilson show. He created a life-size bronze sculpture of Benton, which stands on the ground of the Kansas City Art Institute.

Wilson died in his sleep at the age of 94, leaving behind a true legacy of Native Americans, especially Cherokees, and other paintings that attest to his talent and love of his adopted state, as well as a standard work, Indians: The Story of Eastern Oklahoma Tribes.

The Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art is open 1:30-4:30 p.m., Sundays and Tuesdays – Thursdays in Classic Hall on the campus of Central Methodist University. It is free and open to all. For more information, contact Denise Haskamp, curator, at or at 660-248-6304.

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