Thomas W. Benton

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Tom Benton
Thomas Whelan Benton

(1930-11-16)November 16, 1930
DiedApril 27, 2007(2007-04-27) (aged 76)

Thomas Whelan Benton (November 16, 1930 – April 27, 2007) was an American artist, best known for his political posters and his collaborations with writer Hunter S. Thompson. [1]

Hunter S. Thompson American journalist and author

Hunter Stockton Thompson was an American journalist and author, and the founder of the gonzo journalism movement. He first rose to prominence with the publication of Hell's Angels (1967), a book for which he spent a year living and riding with the Hells Angels motorcycle gang in order to write a first-hand account of the lives and experiences of its members.


Early years

Thomas Whelan Benton was born in Oakland, California on November 16, 1930. He graduated from Glendale High School and attended Glendale Junior College briefly before entering the Navy. In the Navy he served aboard a ship providing support for the Korean War. After being discharged in 1953, Benton used the G.I. Bill to pay for his tuition for a degree in architecture at the University of Southern California. After graduating, Benton spent a brief time as a practicing architect. Benton married his wife Betty during that time and they had two children, Brian and Michelle.

Oakland, California City in California, United States

Oakland is the largest city and the county seat of Alameda County, California, United States. A major West Coast port city, Oakland is the largest city in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area, the third largest city overall in the San Francisco Bay Area, the eighth most populated city in California, and the 45th largest city in the United States. With a population of 432,897 as of 2019, it serves as a trade center for the San Francisco Bay Area; its Port of Oakland is the busiest port in the San Francisco Bay, the entirety of Northern California, and the fifth busiest in the United States of America. An act to incorporate the city was passed on May 4, 1852, and incorporation was later approved on March 25, 1854, which officially made Oakland a city. Oakland is a charter city.

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Korean War 1950s war between North and South Korea

The Korean War was a war between North Korea and South Korea. The war began on 25 June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea following a series of clashes along the border.

Benton first visited Aspen, Colorado in 1958 while he was still in college and immediately fell in love with the town. He returned in 1960 to find he was still impressed by the "neat people" Aspen had living there. After a trip to Europe and fleeting thoughts about Big Sur, his family decided to move to Colorado. In the fall of 1961 the Bentons came back to Aspen, stayed just one day, bought a lot and then returned to Southern California to liquidate their assets in order to pay for the Aspen property.

Aspen, Colorado Town in Colorado, United States

Aspen is the home rule municipality that is the county seat and the most populous municipality of Pitkin County, Colorado, United States. Its population was 6,658 at the 2010 United States Census. Aspen is in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains' Sawatch Range and Elk Mountains, along the Roaring Fork River at an elevation just below 8,000 feet (2,400 m) above sea level on the Western Slope, 11 miles (18 km) west of the Continental Divide.

Big Sur Region of California in the United States

Big Sur is a rugged and mountainous section of the Central Coast of California between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. It is frequently praised for its dramatic scenery. Big Sur has been called the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States," a "national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development" and "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation." The stunning views, redwood forests, hiking, beaches, and other recreational opportunities have made Big Sur a popular destination for about 7 million people who live within a day's drive and visitors from across the world. The region receives about the same number of visitors as Yosemite National Park, but offers extremely limited bus service, few restrooms, and a narrow two-lane highway with few places to park alongside the road. North-bound traffic during the peak summer season and holiday weekends is often backed up for about 20 miles (32 km) from Big Sur Village to Carmel.

In 1963, Benton was in Aspen to begin building what would become his home, studio, and gallery and the family followed the next year. It is still located at 519 East Hyman Avenue in downtown Aspen. Benton did nearly all the work on the building himself and with friends.

Art and Politics

Benton mostly gave up architecture in 1964 to devote time to his art, though he did design a select few buildings later. He became very involved in local and national politics, creating his first anti-war "peace" poster in 1965 and becoming a charter member of the Aspen Liberation Front, a loose-knit group of peace activists. He used quotes to make sure no one missed the message in his work and occasionally added a straight line to his pieces as representing the "hand of man". His artistic influences include the great Japanese artist Hokusai, Paul Jenkins, Mark Rothko, and Morris Lewis. Still, as fellow artist and friend Michael Cleverly puts it, "When he did a 'Benton', it looked like a 'Benton'."[ citation needed ]

Hokusai Japanese artist

Katsushika Hokusai was a Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period. Born in Edo, Hokusai is best known as author of the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji which includes the internationally iconic print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Paul Jenkins was an American abstract expressionist painter.

Mark Rothko American painter

Mark Rothko, born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, was an American painter of Litvak descent. Although Rothko himself refused to adhere to any art movement, he is generally identified as an abstract expressionist.

Benton's close friends included many of the politicians in the Roaring Fork Valley and in 1970 he gained national recognition as the artist who created the posters for Hunter S Thompson's infamous campaign for Pitkin County Sheriff, including the 1970 “Hunter S. Thompson for Sheriff” poster [2] depicting a sheriff's star covered by a two-thumbed fist holding a button of peyote. [3] [4] In the years after that defeat, Benton also designed posters George McGovern and Gary Hart early 1970s. [5]

Roaring Fork Valley Place in Colorado, United States of America

The Roaring Fork Valley is a geographical region in western Colorado in the United States. The Roaring Fork Valley is one of the most affluent regions in Colorado and the U.S. as well as one of the most populous and economically vital areas of the Colorado Western Slope. The Valley is defined by the valley of the Roaring Fork River and its tributaries, including the Crystal and Fryingpan River. It includes the communities of Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs. Mount Sopris and the Roaring Fork River serve as symbols of the Roaring Fork Valley.

"The Battle of Aspen" is an article published in Rolling Stone No. 67, dated October 1, 1970, and written by Hunter S. Thompson. The cover of the magazine ran the teaser "Freak Power in the Rockies", and the article was later reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt.

George McGovern American politician

George Stanley McGovern was an American historian, author, U.S. representative, U.S. senator, and the Democratic Party presidential nominee in the 1972 presidential election.

The "struggling artist" lifestyle took its toil and Benton was divorced from Betty in 1977. He remarried twice more. First to Katie Smith and then to Marci Griffin in 1991. He had to sell the studio home on Hyman and eventually worked out a makeshift studio on the Woody Creek ranch of friend George Stranahan.

Later Years

Benton continued to keep his hand in politics and issues that mattered to him throughout his career, designing the poster that current Sheriff Bob Braudis used in his last campaign in 2006. Starting in 1989 and continuing off and on until 2003 he worked as a jailer for the Pitkin County Sheriff Department. He was still on the roster at the time of his death. Tom spent much of his "art" time creating monoprints and paintings that were an extension of his earlier work with perhaps a bit more left to the imagination of the viewer. A self-described pessimist in his early career, his more recent works show a shift towards lighter issues in his colors and perhaps even a bit more optimism.

Benton was diagnosed with advanced lymphoma in early 2007 and died on Friday, April 27, 2007. He was 76. [1]

A book about Benton's work, by Aspen writer Daniel J. Watkins, was published in 2011. [6] [7] [8]

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  1. 1 2 John Colson, "Well-known Aspen artist has died", Vail Daily , April 30, 2007.
  2. Daniel Joseph Watkins (2011). Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist. People's Press. p. 188. ISBN   9781936905904.
  3. William McKeen (2009). Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. W. W. Norton. p. 114. ISBN   978-0-393-24911-8.
  4. Craig Vetter (2015). Surviving Hunter S. Thompson: Remembering a 35 year friendship. Pronoun. p. 31ff. ISBN   978-1-5080-8558-4.
  5. Hal Elliott Wert (2009). Hope: A Collection of Obama Posters and Prints. Zenith Imprint. pp. 146–147. ISBN   978-1-61673-255-4.
  6. Stewart Oksenhorn, "Aspen author's book features Tom Benton's work", The Aspen Times , April 30, 2007.
  7. Katherine Warren, "The art behind Hunter S. Thompson", Telluride Daily Planet , September 1, 2011.
  8. Samantha Sexton, "Lawrence Arts Center exhibit explores 'Freak Power' of 1970 Aspen sheriff election", University Daily Kansan , September 28, 2015.


Information contained in this biography was partially derived from Aspen/Dreams and Dilemmas by Peggy Clifford and John M. Smith, 1970.

Additional information was provided by the Aspen Historical Society exhibit featuring Tom's work until December 2007.