Downtown gallery features art by Tecumseh couple
The Black Door Gallery, 133 E. Chicago Blvd., Tecumseh, is currently featuring the work of a married couple who happen to both be artists. Shirley Van Benschoten’s rich renderings of farm scenes, orchards and shorelines and Bryan Van Benschoten’s early American Pottery pieces are on display through the end of November.
Bryan grew up in the Catskill Mountains of New York State where his dad was in conservation law enforcement.
“I hated school and always wanted to be outdoors,” he said. But a high school art teacher at Margaretville High School noticed his artistic talents and nurtured them. “My father was also very instrumental and encouraged me to go to college,” Bryan said. “I didn’t know whether to go into forestry or the art world, but when I put out applications, I was accepted at Alfred University’s College of Ceramics.”
As it turned out, the school is one of the best places in the world to study ceramics, and launched Bryan on a lifelong career related to creating pottery. Following two years in the military, he came to Michigan on the advice of a friend who served as company clerk in his unit.
“I’d hoped to get a job at Ford Motor Company,” he said, “ but it was September and they told me they had to re-hire those laid off in the summer before anyone new.” About that time, Bryan connected with a man known as Peter Potter from Detroit, who told him there was a Master Potter’s position opening up at Greenfield Village. He was soon employed at The Edison Institute (Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum) training others in the business of ceramics, specifically the production of early American Pottery from the 1700s through the early 1900s, a position he kept for more than 38 years.
After living for a time in the Detroit area, Bryan purchased some property on US-12 in Clinton and later moved to Lenawee County. That was when he began to get familiar with Tecumseh — and met Shirley, a fellow artist.
“We actually met through my grandfather, Harold Ashenfelter, who told me I should meet Bryan,” said Shirley. “He began attending Assembly of God Church where my family went and we ended up being in Bible study together.”
Shirley’s interest in art goes back as far as she can remember. “Since I was a young child my father encouraged me in art work,” she said. Edward Martin, a Tecumseh Products employee, also liked to draw and paint. “In school I was always favoring anything to do with art,” she added. When it was time to graduate, she said she didn’t really have any plans when her father insisted that she should go to college.
“It came as a big surprise to me that he would say that because we really weren’t in a financial position for it, but he said, ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re going,’” Shirley said. After checking around, she enrolled at Siena Heights University with a major in painting and loved it. She obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. She wanted to go to graduate school, but was unable to do so.
About the time she met Bryan, Shirley was renting studio space over Goldie Watkins’ dress shop on Chicago Boulevard and working at The Shopper across the street, which later became The Access. At one point she invited Bryan into her studio and he was very impressed and knew he had found a kindred spirit. They were married in 1979.
Bryan continued his commute to The Edison Institute throughout his career there, even as the couple made their home in Tecumseh.
“I’m a Tecumseh girl and I didn’t want to move to Detroit or uproot our son, Elijah,” said Shirley. Elijah has inherited artistic genes and currently teaches art courses at two colleges in Cincinnati, Ohio. His wife Amber Hunt is an investigative reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the couple will be giving the Van Benschoten’s their first grandchild in December.
At one point, Shirley took a position with the United States Postal Service, working at the Tecumseh Post Office. “It was supposed to be a temporary job, but I ended up staying 32 years,” she said. In the meantime, both artists set up studios at their home to continue their work. Shirley retired in 2010 and now pursues painting full time, along with such roles as serving as president of the Lenawee County Visual Artists and volunteering at the Black Door Gallery.
Bryan retired from “The Henry Ford” in Dearborn in 2009, but still teaches sculpture and ceramics classes at Adrian College as an adjunct instructor and serves as kiln coordinator there. He has won numerous awards for his work and has been featured in a number of newspapers and magazines.
One of Shirley’s pieces of a cornfield, which she said was of Dave Squires’ Lenawee County farm, appeared on the cover of a recent Homefront Magazine. Bryan said the couple also travels around for ideas for Shirley’s paintings, such as their trips to the Traverse City area.
“I think next summer we’ll go to the Upper Peninsula to see some coastlines so she can paint some of those areas,” Bryan said.
Bryan enjoys teaching and said one of his students was Tecumseh artist John Ahern, who now also works at Greenfield Village.
“He’s one of the reasons why I teach,” he said. “You get those few students who are very dedicated and really want to do extremely well and work hard. If they work hard, then I know they can probably succeed at it.”