|Ben Messick, American (1891 - 1981)
Benjamin Newton Messick, known as "the American Daumier," painted, drew, and lithographed Americana as he found it in his hometown of Los Angeles. A native of Missouri, Messick served in France in World War I and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an artist. With humor and compassion he recorded fragments of life as it was being lived in urban Southern California - robust and earthy subjects amidst, in is own words, "the streets, parks, Main Street cafes, polo fields, and beaches."
In the 1940s, he was a sketch artist for Disney Studios and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer and he taught at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles from 1943 to 1951. From 1948 to 1953, he also taught classes at the San Diego School of Arts and Crafts.
Messick's vernacular observations are intended to bring to life the color and the spirit of his times. During the Depression years, he worked on a number of WPA murals in the Los Angeles area and did three murals for the United States Treasury Department in Washington DC. His work has been widely exhibited and is included in such collections as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Laguna Art Museum, and the Springfield Museum of Art in Missouri.
William Washington Messick married Sarah A. Bristow January 2,1889 and from this marriage a son, Benjamin Newton Messick was born on January 9, 1891 on a farm near Strafford, Missouri. His art talent was apparent from the time he was a child and later recognized by his commanding officer in World War I.
Little is recorded in his autobiography about Messick's life from his teen years and service during the War. He enrolled at Chouinard Institute in the Fall of 1925, and was given a three-year scholarship by Mrs. Chouinard. In 1925 he won a cash award at the Los Angeles County Fair for a group of pen and charcoal drawings done in the parks and streets of Los Angeles. These works give the appearance of being spontaneous and fluid.
In 1930 Messick left Chouinard as a full-time student and rented an apartment on West Eighth Street to use as a studio and living quarters. He had his own ideas on what he was trying to accomplish in art. "If you should ask what is the message of my drawings, I should say that they may explain themselves or may be just a technical exercise."
By the mid 1940s, Messick's position in the art world had been well established as a teacher, painter, printmaker, writer and critic. Over his life time he had over 400 shows and exhibitions. Starting in 1939 he produced a number of stone lithographs that appear to the untrained eye as original drawings. To Messick the image was the most important aspect of his lithographs, and his signature in the plate was sufficient. Hand signing each lithograph did not seem necessary to him. He exhibited prints widely including the Albany Print Club and the Metropolitian Museum.
To further substantiate the authenticity of Messick's prints the Eclectic Gallery under the authority of the Messick family posthumously pencil signed each estate-acquired stone lithograph.
Messick had a childhood fascination with the circus and started drawing and painting the circus in 1935. His circus work, especially his clown studies, and his lithographs became his trademark work for in the 1940s and 1950s. A critic for ART REVIEW described his Big Top work this way: "His circus canvases, however, are his most interesting and show where Messick's interest lies. His clown portraits are worthy of time and study because of the endless change he has caught in each face and for the underlying character that shines through the grotesque paint."
As early as 1941, paintings by Messick were exhibiting elements of modernism in that his brush work was less labored and the style more expressionist. They often incorporated a degree of mysticism. This is evident in a series of clown portraits he did on tear-off palette paper. He called these works his Serendipity paintings.