Artist shares work, dream with students

Painting is an intuitive experience for international portrait artist Stephen Bennett that he says is as much about feeling and mood as it is getting the dimensions just right.

“Personalities many times are in the shape of the line that divides your top and bottom lip,” noted Bennett, counseling eighth-grade art students during a portrait demonstration at La Jolla Country Day School last week. “If you can get that line right you can sometimes capture the person perfectly.”

But there was more to the visit than painting. Bennett in June will take a group of students from Sue Nordenger’s class to Bogani, Kenya, where they will help build a school and head portrait-painting classes for children in the area.

Making a connection

The teacher told her students it would be a life-changing experience. “Everything you see and confront will become different,” she said.

Bennett concurred. “With the people that you meet,” he said, “there’s a resonance, a connection.”

When they return, they will sell the portraits to raise funds awareness of the Free the Children initiative that promotes water sanitation and building schools.

The New York City-based portraitist spent a couple of days at Country Day and O’Farrell Middle School teaching portrait workshops to students while a gallery of his work titled “Uniting through Faces,” first featured at the United Nations earlier this year, was exhibited.

Bennett painted a portrait of an African child that is now one of several logos included on bottled water from NIKA, a local entrepreneurial project to raise money to provide clean water for children in Third World countries.

1,000 faces

He said his goal is to complete an international exhibition of 1,000 portraits of children worldwide, is founder of “Faces of the World,” a nonprofit whose mission is to increase cultural pride and awareness of indigenous cultures.

During last week’s portrait workshop, Bennett leafed through his portfolio of children’s portraits, which have drawn international acclaim.

“Colors and feelings go together,” he said, showing the warm colors washing over an African girl depicted during a beach sunset. “I captured her personality which is joyful.”

Bennett proceeded to pick a male mop-topped volunteer as his subject du jour.

“I use bright colors to express how I feel a person looks like,” he said, “including colors from the environment, the plants, the flowers, what I remember from the experience.”

Art of painting

Portraiture is simpler than you think, explained Bennett, picking up a blue-dipped brush and starting to paint.

The hair is one shape, he pointed out, the face another, the jaw, the ears. Speaking and drawing simultaneously, his portrait began to emerge.

In little more than five minutes, a portrait that began as three blue circles morphed into a fully realized abstract drawing of the boy, who no one would have trouble picking out from among his classmates.