On October 13, Google hosted an interview and art exhibition with ArtLifting co-founder Liz Powers and artist Scott Benner. Founded by Liz and her brother Spencer Powers in 2013, ArtLifting empowers aspiring artists who are homeless and/or afflicted with health problems by providing them with supplies and a platform to hold gallery showings and sell their art. ArtLifting is not a charity: they collect 44% of their partnered artists’ sales in exchange for their services. This distinction is meaningful for artists who are looking to become self-sufficient but have fallen on hard times.
Scott Benner was one of the first artists commissioned by ArtLifting. After the steel mill he worked at went out of business in 2009, Benner struggled to find work for three years. In 2012, he began to suffer cluster headaches and bouts of confusion and was diagnosed with Horner’s Syndrome, a neurological condition which in Benner’s case was thought to stem from a number of concussions he had sustained throughout his life. Benner’s symptoms were so severe that his neurologist told him he might never be able to hold a job. Shortly after his diagnosis, Benner’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, and medical expenses forced them to sell their house. After his wife’s recovery, having spent all of their retirement savings, the couple decided to separate. It was May of 2013. “I hit the road, still thinking I would find a job, even though I was living with a backpack at that point,” says Benner. “It didn’t work out.”
Benner continued to suffer from Horner’s syndrome, and by October he found himself homeless in Quincy. There he often took shelter in Father Bill’s Place, a homeless shelter where we heard about Powers and ArtLifting from a fellow lodger. Benner began to draw in order to cope with his situation and restore his self-confidence. Benner had started drawing in high school after exposure to his two main influences, famed Dutch artist M.C. Escher and the controversial, satirical cartoonist Robert Crumb. The influence of Escher is particularly evident in much of Benner’s art, which features dazzling patterns and intricately drawn details.
Before long, Benner was exchanging emails with Powers about marketing his artwork. Through ArtLifting, Benner was able to start selling his art in May 2014. “I don’t even think Liz realized how fast it was going to grow,” Benner said. The following September, Benner had his first public art show on Newbury St as a solo artist. He expressed disbelief that he had achieved success so quickly: “People don’t show their artwork at solo shows, and they certainly don’t have their first shows on Newbury St.”
Benner’s rapid success has been accompanied by tremendous growth in ArtLifting’s scope of operations and public profile— when Benner signed on there were only four other artists, now there are 72 in 11 different cities around the country. ArtLifting’s success has been in part due to partnerships with corporations like Google, Microsoft, and Harvard University, in which those institutions purchase art from ArtLifting for their office spaces. In response to a question posed by an audience member regarding the future of ArtLifting, Liz indicated that most of their efforts were now focused towards building and scaling partnerships like these.
At the end of the presentation, Benner fought back tears describing what ArtLifting meant to him personally: “They probably saved me.” Speaking afterwards, he admitted “It’s not a question of whether this saved my life or not, it’s a fact.” For more information about how ArtLifting is working to empower artists like Scott Benner, visit their website at www.artlifting.com.
Sam was born and raised in Villanova, PA and attended the University of Pennsylvania. He majored in diplomatic history and spent a lot of his time writing for the Pennsylvania Punch Bowl, a student-run satire magazine. Since graduating in May of 2016, he has helped to establish Tiger Hills Coffee Company with a friend, a company whose mission is to export premium Indian coffee to the United States. He enjoys humor writing, dogs, craft beer, and very loud music.
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