Homer Benedict lived for more than the entire 20th century, but he spent his later years recreating an artistic record of a single seven-year span in his youth. He was born at the dawn of the century, in 1900, and at the age of eight went to live and work on the 240-acre Benedict farm in the village of Treadwell, New York, in Delaware County. Homer’s time spent there, which lasted until 1925, stayed with him his entire life. Picture an eight-year-old boy growing to the adulthood in daily contact with the machinery, the animals, and the elements that were so much a part of agricultural life. In 1988, at the age of 88, Homer began to make sculptures that reflected the experience.
At first glance, the pieces he created look clean, simple, and straightforward. A man working a horse-drawn cultivator Another man sledding rocks. Another working a large roller. Each figure is carved as a flat form with penciled facial features and costume details.
The works are much more subtle, however, as becomes evident when you look closely at the nuances. The figures lean into the plows they work. They pull gently or firmly at the reins of the horses they command. They sit upright with feet placed firmly before them to steady themselves on the machinery. Homer knew from experience the physical fundamentals of farm work. If it was a sport, he could have coached it.
I never met Homer, but fortunately there was some very good work done about him during his lifetime (he died in 2006 at the age of 106!). Ellen Damsky produced a catalogue, “The Folk Art of Homer Benedict” for the Delaware County Historical Association in 1995, and john Gruen conducted numerous interviews with the artist and wrote an extended article about him.
In 2007, the Benedict family gave fifteen of Homer’s pieces to the Fenimore Art Museum for our folk art collection. Like the artist himself, these pieces speak eloquently of the dignity of labor. Despite the acclaim he received in his later years, Homer never understood why he became so well known for his artwork. He said at one exhibition opening:
“I don’t see the sense of it. I’m just a common old cuss! I can’t make up my mind that I’m anything special. All I can say is I’m interested in what I do. I never thought anything about this stuff when I was growing up. I can hardly believe I’ve done all this stuff. I’ve got too much to do. I’m lucky to be able to do it.”
Homer Benedict at his home in South Kortright. Photograph by T.M. Bradshaw