Richard Benbrook: saying goodbye to a friend of many years

I really don’t recall the first time I met many of the people who later became my oldest friends. It could have been at school, at a Roost dance, or around town. Curiously, I do remember the first time I was introduced to Richard Benbrook by a mutual friend who assured me I’d immediately befriend Richard because he was witty, zany and very “cool.”

And “cool” he was that sunny Saturday morning in 1961, standing on the porch of his parent’s home on Baker St. His hilariously entertaining stories of narrowly escaping the gnashing teeth of a yapping Chihuahua, or breathlessly hiding from teenage bullies, were spiced with excitement and punctuated with his trademark humor, illuminating an otherwise ordinary day. We became friends and he remained an inspiration to me until his recent, untimely passing. He’s being remembered here for his infectious, lighthearted spirit and his artistic contributions and appreciation for the Petaluma community.

Throughout his life and true to his calling, Richard honed his craft as a delightfully talented artist, poet and writer, capturing the quirky and sublime nuances of everyday behavior. Born inquisitive and creative, and (according to him) with an inherited gene that disdained any form of strenuous labor, he sought projects that involved drawing, painting and writing.

A native of Arkansas and a Petaluma resident since moving here with his parents and four siblings in 1956, Richard easily made new friends. At Petaluma High, he es-chewed academic achievement but excelled in art classes behind the influence of art teachers Margaret Chase and Frank Marshall. He was fun-loving and an occasional mischievous prankster, who once smuggled live pigeons into the State Theater and released them during the showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

Just out of high school in 1966, he and fellow artist Paul Downing, after spending a lot of time together painting in oils and watercolors, loaded up Downing’s ’52 Chevy with art supplies and painted their way across the South as they headed to New Orleans.

“Richard was the rare artist who created totally unique art from his own imagination. He never copied other artist’s style because he had an overflowing fountain of his own ideas,” noted Downing. “He used satire, irony and humor to great effect, and was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He was sweet and humble and many of his jokes were about his own foibles or mishaps.”

Benbrook married the only girl he ever loved, his high school sweetheart Dinah Gibbens, at McNear Park in 1970. The couple moved several times, ending up in the Bay Area where Richard started his own commercial art business obtaining contracts with many large corporations. Chevron, Rocket Juice, Disney and the U.S. Postal Service were among his clients, and the iconic Express Mail eagle, seen on mailboxes nationwide, was one of his collaborative creations. In addition to design work, Richard and his wife created hiring and training guides for major Silicon Valley firms.

Returning to Petaluma in 1985, the Benbrooks purchased an early 20th century farmhouse from a family member, with Richard retaining several of his prominent clients for whom he’d designed labels, logos and web sites. Locally, in addition to art exhibits and showings of his three-dimensional works, he wrote poetry and created the graphics for the highly regarded Poetry Walk, fashioned a unique miniature ’56 Chevy for the Petaluma Community Art Expo, and designed the logo for Deaf Dog Coffee.

Describing his style of art, Benbrook once said, “My art is about paradox. It is a realm where the banal and the profound share equal billing; where meaning is assigned to goofball characters going about mundane activities; where truths become brightly packaged like junk food snacks.

“In the present chaotic phase of human evolution, the effects of technology, mass consumerism and globalization have crashed down on us like an avalanche, burying many hallowed beliefs. I use art as a search dog, to dig through the opulent rubble in an attempt to retrieve shards of meaning.”

My recollections of Richard, from teenagers to seniors, were always uplifting, introspective and humorous. While not widely known, I am indebted to him for being the brainchild of this column. It was while he was working a cartoonist for the Argus-Courier, for which he won a California Newspaper Publisher’s award, that he suggested to the editorial staff that I might be a good candidate to write a history-related column.

I’m grateful to him for that.

His writings and cartoons have appeared in many publications including in his own original art, literature and poetry magazine, The Tomcat, which he helped establish. He was one of us, an original, charismatic figure who brought warmth, whimsical humor and insight to this quirky town, and smiles to everyone who knew him.

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