Art Awakening

How does one create a Sustainable Art Community in an unsustainable society? It begins with a twinkling in the darkness of an “Enchanted Loom.” Welcome to the mind of mandala maker Paul Benavidez.

By Tree Bernstein

Photo by T Christian Gapen

Artist Paul Benavidez, out of the shadows and into the Black Stallion Studio, Fillmore.


’m headed to Fillmore to interview intrepid community artist-activist Paul Benavidez, when he emails me directions: “It’s where the old city dump used to be. Can you believe a town would use a river bottom as their city dump? It was closed in 1972 and capped with a hardscape. Later, the property became a horse boarding facility, which it is to this day.” Benavidez speaks like this, often incredulous (drawing on historical references) and with a sense of outrage, followed by unabashed hope for humankind. “Art is the human heart,” he affirms. “I love all aspects of it.”

The river bottom suits Benavidez and his mission to energize the Fillmore community through free art classes and community service projects. At the Fillmore Equestrian Center a large open barn is his studio and gallery, while a singlewide green trailer emblazoned with a black stallion serves as his bunk.

The idea for a Sustainable Art Community came from Benavidez’s observation that “we live in an unsustainable society.” Climate change and continued drought, political and religious wars are ready examples of unsustainable patterns. As a well-known personality in the Ventura art scene, Benavidez has long been an instigator and participant in artist-based community projects, like the early years of Art City and later planning the WAV (Working Artists of Ventura) project. He has seen how art reinvigorates communities, such as downtown Ventura in the ‘80s, when he created window galleries in closed shops along Main Street. Now, he calls Fillmore home.

A mandala created out of colorful plastic coat hangers covers the wall of his studio barn. When coupled, two coat hangers resemble a butterfly, which intersects other configurations, awakening new patterns as it weaves and wraps around the room. Benavidez credits neuroscientist Charles S. Sherrington with the concept of “the Enchanted Loom” in his 1942 book Man On His Nature, in which the author poetically describes his conception of what happens in the cerebral cortex during the transition from sleep to awakening. This “awakening” is a key component of the notion of sustainable, artful living. Like the mandala, the Sustainable Art Community comes from an enchanted loom from which many new weavings and patterns are created.

Collaborating with youth advocate Daniel Gonzalez at One Step A La Vez Center, Benavidez offers free art and philosophy classes for teens 13-17. In a recent Facebook post, he wrote: “We had a productive day today with the kids. We discussed meditation: learning how to meditate, the benefits of meditation according to science and actual practice. We discussed how to turn breakdowns into breakthroughs. Discussion on human perception of the universe—is the universe outside of us or inside?” They also draw and paint, often using each other as models.

Another collaborator, Gerald Fitzgerald, who refers to himself as “old and priceless,” is a gardener and advisor for the backyard farming project, which came out of the Lions Club LEO: Leadership Experience Opportunity. Teens create custom straw bale raised-beds for gardens in their community. Funded solely by donations, the kids “do it for the doing,” collaborating with clients to create elegant, water-wise beds designed to fit each particular backyard environment. In the past year they have created 15 beds for 10 customers on a sliding scale. Proceeds from the project fund college scholarships for the teens. Fitzgerald champions the idea of “working with what you’ve got.” He also gets profound satisfaction sharing stories with the kids and hearing about their lives—but doesn’t like the term “at-risk youth.” Benavidez comments, “We are all at risk here.” Fitzgerald notes that his garden reflects his Irish heritage, and encourages new gardeners to recognize their roots, so to speak, to create gardens that reflect their own culture. “We serve,” he says, quoting the Lions Club motto, then quips, “The Vegetable Valet at your service—nutrition is our mission!”

Another project in the works is the Bicycle Hub, to be headquartered at the Fillmore Equestrian Center. Its purpose is to bring awareness to alternative transportation. It will be a place for the community to tinker with bicycles, socialize, and plan bike trips. Envisioning these intersecting projects involving art and community, Benavidez weaves it all into the acronym FACE: Fillmore Arts & Community Education, the non-profit umbrella. “I love all types of art, from children’s to professional art,” Benavidez says reverently. “All are interesting to me.” He pauses, almost smiling. “Synergy is potential for humanity to perceive possibilities never before imagined.”

One coat hanger is just one coat hanger. Two make a butterfly. Two times 200 create a flight pattern. Who knows where this synergy will take them next?

The artwork of Paul Benavidez:

For more information about Sustainable Art Community projects or Benavidez’s multi-disciplinary arts practice, follow him on Facebook, email, or call 805.340.1448.

Sledgehammer at the ready, Benavidez contemplates infinite artistic possibilities.

Local Leo Club member Lauren Magdalena uses colored coat hangers to build the replicating polygon, an integral part of “the infinite art form called The Enchanted Loom.”

At the Fillmore Equestrian Center, a converted barn becomes the Black Stallion Studio. Seen here (from left), a partial view of “The Enchanted Loom,” a painting titled “M-2 Transformation,” E.L. medium, and a painting titled “M-3 The Serpent.”

A rustic overview of the Sustainable Art Community, including the Leo Club’s raised gardens, part of the “Vegetable Valet” Backyard Farming Awareness Project conceived by Leo Club advisor Gerald Fitzgerald.

Club members Lauren Magdalena and Nick Stehly.

Tools of the trade.


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