by Barbara Sherf
At 55, Mt. Airy resident Ellen Benson took a one-year sabbatical from her career in the banking industry, started taking art classes and got married for the first time.
“I was tired of the pressure as V.P. of human resources and thought I’d just find a ‘normal’ job and pursue other interests,” said Benson, now 70. During that year, the bank where she worked was sold, and she exercised her stock options, deciding to pursue her love of art as a mixed-media and found-object artist.
A friend set up Benson on a date with a psychologist by the name of Allen “Zak” Zaklad at a New Year’s Eve party in 1998. The couple married in 2003. “I knew he really ‘got’ my art,” said Benson. “One time when I was in my studio, he looked at all of these old paintbrushes, and he said, ‘Nice legs.’”
Such a perspective is important to Benson’s work. She has produced 600 “Dumpster Diva” figures made from found objects, papier-mâché, clay and fabric. Her goal is to make 1,000 of them.
Benson belongs to the Dumpster Divers, a band of artists who meet monthly to brainstorm, plan exhibitions and trade materials for their art. This art is made from items donated, put out at the curb, scavenged from scrap yards, yard sales and thrift shops and found on the street. The group celebrated a 25-year anniversary in October.
“We don’t actually go into the dumpsters now. I think it’s illegal,” said Benson.
Her brother, Neil, who co-founded the group, makes lamps out of old toys and furniture from discarded street signs and license plates. “Trash is simply a failure of imagination,” he said.
Benson said that as Zak was moving into her Mt. Airy home, she was making room for his things and found old family photos and documents in several boxes her mother had given her.
“My mother saved everything,” she said, “from old photos, deeds, military discharge papers, war ration stamps, even wallpaper and fabric samples from our family home.
“She also liked to give items a new life. I remember her taking a chair out of the neighbor’s trash, reupholstering it and using it for 30 more years. I’d say she was an early environmentalist.”
Before she became an artist, Benson was a collector of folk art, Latin American art and art she found in her travels, especially to Mexico, one of her favorite places. Her work is currently in a show called “Doll Therapy” in San Miguel de Allende.
Benson’s work has also appeared in magazines, a book and dozens of exhibitions, including ones at City Hall and Philadelphia International Airport. As for her Dumpster Diva figures, she describes the collection as “a family, a friendship circle, a tribe … I see a bottle cap on the street and turn it into a diva’s hat. Old paintbrushes can be used as legs, and cigar boxes are really little homes where my friends go to play and live.”
Following African art and Appalachian traditions, Benson also makes “memory jugs” from bottles and other vessels. She decorates them with trinkets, including seashells, glass shards, jewelry, coins, mirrors and other visual reminders of a loved one.
“I did one for my Uncle Eddie, who was in the Navy in World War II,” she said. “It’s red, white and blue and has his dog tags, naval artifacts and little boats exposed all over.”
She would like to donate the jug to a veterans’ organization or the Independence Seaport Museum.
She has also made a memory jug as a tribute to her mother with items from her mother’s sewing room and bits of jewelry. Benson houses much of her finished work at The Mill Studios in Manayunk.
For more information, email email@example.com or visit unexpectedphila.com/portfolio. This article was reprinted, with permission, from Milestones, the monthly publication of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.