Resident at Westbeth since 2009
My Friendship with Barton Benes, Part 1
I moved into Westbeth in 2009. After 14 years on the waiting list and 39 years after the doors first opened to artists, I thought I was too late, that I had missed so much. I wanted to absorb all the history and quickly get caught up to speed. In the first week, I signed up for a group art exhibition in the Gallery and introduced myself to as many people that would say hello to me. One such introduction in an elevator led to a woman asking me, “Who died?” when I told her I had just moved into Westbeth.
In December 2009, my neighbor slipped a note under my door. She was going away and wanted me to keep an eye on Barton, a 67-year-old original Westbeth artist in declining health. We all lived on the same floor, just a few doors away from one another. She thought it best that I call him and schedule an appointment to meet.
Later that week, I met Barton. The door was unlocked. I sheepishly walked inside and had no idea what to expect. It took time for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. I told him that I needed a few moments to take it all in. I saw artifacts, African masks, a life-size giraffe neck and head, the head of a bull, neatly stuffed cabinets with relics, hanging lanterns, mummies, and artwork everywhere. His living space seemed carved out from the art, with the kitchen and sleep area just peeking out. Barton was seated at his wooden dining table, lit with a single pendant lamp shining a faint warm golden glow on him. He was smiling, as this was one of his moments of great pride, seeing people’s reaction to his life’s collection.
We spoke for over three hours, discovering our shared sense of humor as well as our similar childhood hometowns in New Jersey. We both recalled the same bus route to and from New York City to visit our families. He delighted in my every question, and I thoroughly enjoyed every answer. I would have only two years and five months left to get to know this amazing artist and person. At every chance, he introduced me to his Westbeth friends and longtime friends, as well as his family. I introduced him to my friends and family. We visited him in and out of the hospital. When he was back home, we’d proudly wheel him around the West Village as he pointed out what buildings used to be in the gritty heyday of the Meatpacking area.