— Beloved Shepherd University dean retires after 48 years.
Shepherd University faculty member and dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, Dow Benedict—a beloved artist, mentor, and visionary leader—retired in December (2019) after 48 years of service.
Having worked since he was 12 years old, his expectations without a defined role are taking shape. For now, Benedict is building a studio barn behind his home and moving forward with intention. “With the demands of my role at Shepherd and involvement in other organizations and projects, it has been very difficult for me to get extended time in my studio,” he noted, “so my initial goal is to get back into the studio and see if I still have any abilities remaining—to see if the passion remains.”
Benedict’s passion for creating art has been a life-long companion. “I never decided on art; it was just where I went.” His father, a printer and political activist, gave him access to reams of paper and exposure to vibrant discussions and discourse that fed his curiosity and awareness of art as a political reflection or statement about the human condition.
Additionally, Benedict expresses feeling “… fortunate to have had some great teachers who took a big interest in my development, starting with a third-grade teacher in Fulton, Missouri, Miss Burt, who kept up with my work up unto her death.”
In high school, his art teacher took interest. “Mrs. Berry let me work in her classroom rather than go to study halls,” he remembered. “She must have done a great job, as there were several people in my graduating class of one hundred who went on to obtain their MFA in art.”
However, not everyone encouraged Benedict’s artistic pursuits. “My high school counselors did not encourage me to go into art, saying ‘I had too high of an IQ to waste in art’—and also believing (as many do today) that there is little financial future in art.”
(Advice that was heard, but not heeded.)
Looking back on his undergraduate experience, Benedict highlights apprenticeships as having a large impact. “A great deal of my education, including college credit, was done as an apprenticeship,” he affirmed. “I had four two-year apprenticeships starting when I was fourteen and ending when I graduated from the University of Missouri.”
Benedict paints a picture of observing and learning techniques in varied media and, beyond these, the importance of a solid work ethic and discipline. “The masters I apprenticed under were all devoted and talented artists, and the work I was able to do with each of them—working alongside them in their studios—provided me with an understanding in what was involved/required to be an artist.”
Following graduation, and prior to coming to Shepherd (then-College), Benedict worked briefly in graphic design, but quickly learned it was not for him. “I did not like having to produce work with a client in charge, and I had enjoyed the time I spent as a graduate assistant in classroom studios, so I looked into teaching.”
His next move was to a high school with a large art program. But while he liked teaching, he preferred working at the college level, and began looking for another position.
“I was fortunate to receive several offers, and selected Shepherd,” Benedict said. “The other schools were in the Midwest, and Linda and I wanted to try a different region of the country. As I was a long-haired hippy and her hair got super frizzy in areas of high humidity, we ruled out the South and the Northwest. I also really connected with the people I would work with at Shepherd, especially Ron Jones, who was the chair of the art department, and felt the potential to build a great program was there, as well as the desire to do that.”
Work Begets Work
Having arrived in 1971, Benedict initially noticed that many Shepherd students were from the immediate area and had limited outside exposure to art and cultural attractions, despite proximity to large cities. He and other program faculty paved the way by developing opportunities for students to travel and study in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. To that end, international travel opportunities were not far behind.
“Students and faculty have been to Paris, Italy, Egypt, Peru … there’s no place in Europe they haven’t been for art and cultural exposure, and for some, they went on to live, work, and study abroad,” he indicated.
Benedict also helped establish internship and apprenticeship opportunities, and reflects on unique partnerships with local artisans as well as cutting-edge design firms and influencers in the regional art industry who began to inform their curriculum. And being the only sculptor on the faculty led Benedict to recognize that students “… needed more information, influence, and exposure than one person could provide, and fortunately, there are a number of excellent sculptors in the area who were willing to accept some of our students in their studio.”
Having spent close to five decades working with and observing Shepherd students, Benedict came to know that “… everybody’s got something to offer—some level of experience and knowledge that is new. All students are different, and you can see this in their experiences and exposure and how it’s applied to their pieces.” One of the greatest highlights Benedict describes is “… seeing the light bulb go off in students, along with the joy and sense of accomplishment in watching their development.”
For current art students, and those who are creators and makers out in the world, Benedict recommends patience and self-advocacy. “With the rise of the Internet, combined with the trend to outsource, the world of art has changed dramatically, making it far more difficult for an artist to get their ‘foot in the door’ and gain gallery sponsorship,” he explained. “It now requires the individual to be their own personal advocate and sponsor and market their work in a very different way.”
Benedict circles back to the importance of discipline. “One really has to have a discipline in order to do many of the things that we should be doing. That is where the philosophy I learned from the sculptor William Klapp comes into play; work begets work. You have to get in there and struggle and make something—anything—and by doing that, you will then find yourself actively working and doing great things.”
That said, being a member of the Shepherd faculty wasn’t the only way Benedict contributed to the local community over the years. His personal service efforts also included work with the local planning commission, the historical society, and co-running German Street Gallery, a non-profit he helped to run with other local artists for several years.
When Shepherd became Benedict’s home, he and his wife Linda planned a temporary stay. “The intention was to stay for three years and build my resume and then move on to a ‘bigger and better’ school, but the progress we were making in building the art program, and our love for Shepherdstown and the people, changed that plan, and here we stayed—forty-eight years flying by.”
Feelings of gratitude and joy are ever-present within Benedict’s current outlook. “I think I may be the luckiest man alive,” he emphasized. “I have had and continue to have someone in my life who I love and who brings me great joy. Linda and I were married when we were still teenagers and grew up together and had a wonderful forty-eight years together. When she died, I felt I would live the rest of my life alone, as no one could reasonably expect to have another great love. And then, four years later, Annette appears.
“I have wonderful children and grandchildren who also bring me great joy and make me proud in the lives they live. I have had the pleasure and satisfaction of working with hundreds of brilliant and dedicated people at Shepherd, and am incredibly pleased by our collaborations and what we have been able to create. I love Shepherdstown and the surrounding region. It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in this world, and I am constantly amazed by the wonderful people I see almost daily. Lucky, I am!”
— For those interested in investing in art and theatre at Shepherd, the Shepherd Foundation has established a website for such donations. For now, select “other,” and insert “Dow Benedict Endowment for Art & Theatre” when prompted. Benedict’s wish is to have this designated for programs that enrich the lives of students, faculty and staff, and the community through exhibits, lectures, residencies, and workshops in art and theatre.By Wendy Baracka, LICSW