Friday, November 08, 2013

Ben Denison, In His Own Words: Part 5

Ben Denison was a Chicago illustrator during the mid-20th century. For a time before his death, Ben and I corresponded about his career. Unfortunately, due to Ben's failing health, our correspondence was cut short before Ben had managed to tell me his whole story. Recently Ben's daughter Mary shared some recollections of her dad's career and some rare examples of his work with me. Here at last is the conclusion of Ben Denison's story. ~ Leif

Mary Denison...

I don't know if he told you, but Dad was also a pretty good Dixieland cornetist. I've included a photo of him, probably taken by Ray Boldt.


Sometime during this era, in the late 50's early 60's, Ben was working at an illustration job in Chicago for Stevens, Biondi, DeCicco Art Studio. While he was at that job he was commissioned to paint "the Stations of the Cross" for St. Isaac Jogues - a Catholic Church in Niles, Illinois.


I truly believe these were his greatest work of art. They were written up in the Chicago Tribune Magazine and greatly admired.


From Ben's notes...

I was able to use the studio facilities and work on paintings whenever I didn't have a "paying job" to do. Just about everybody at SBD in Chicago posed for the 'the Stations'. Andy Aldridge was Jesus...


Lucia Lerner posed for Mary and two of the women of Jerusalem...


Elie Kalan for another and for Mary in the Pieta.


Fank Kalan was Simon of Cyrene.


Vince Salerno, Pontius Pilate.


Bill Baker, George Lopac, Eddy Augustiny and Alfredo Carrugatti were soldiers.


I was working at SBD's studio in New York City when I finally finished The Stations of the Cross. It was a job that I'd had three years to accomplish though, as usual, I ended up working all night the night before they were shipped off to Chicago to be framed, hung and dedicated.


During the time I worked on The Stations, Father Spring, the pastor of the parish, was very concerned that my paintings might be too modern. He on several occasions brought around church officials to check out the work.


I was still doing work for Playboy at that time - the sports car cartoon series...


... and they had run a double page spread of them with my picture and the caption "The Sporty Sporting Ben Denison."


Father Spring showed up at the house one evening, with a Bishop in tow who he introduced to me as the priest in charge of the art department at Notre Dame University. The Bishop looked me over when Father introduced me and said, "Ah, so this is the Sporty Sporting Ben Denison?!"

I was never sure who was supposed to be embarrassed about that.


He was very knowledgeable man who knew as much about illustration as he did gallery art. He was very complimentary about my paintings and I have to admit that I was very pleased and Father Spring's concerns were mollified.

I sound very casual about this but in actuality it was a very moving experience to have done these paintings.

Mary Denison...

In 1970, Ben took a job with John Deere advertising as the head of photography in hopes of making a better and more regular income. By 1973, he was on his own again. He was tiring of photography and returned to illustration.


One company I remember he and mom working for was Houghton Mifflin (text books). I remember seeing his illustrations in my childhood textbooks. I would always look in the back at the list of illustrators' names and find his drawings.


Dad's "Stations of the Cross" paintings were wonderful to look at as a child while I sat through a Latin mass I didn't really understand- all the time wondering about what my father was thinking while he painted those beautiful pictures.


I do remember later in life, he would joke that those paintings were his ticket into heaven.

(Ben Denison in later years with a series of his Dixieland-themed paintings)

* Many thanks to Mary Denison and the other members of the Denison family for their tremendous generosity and assistance in helping me bring Ben Denison's story together. ~ Leif

* Thanks to Heritage Auctions for allowing me to use the scan of Ben Denison's Playboy cartoon in this post.


  1. Thanks for running this story on Ben Denison, Leif. I've enjoyed it very much. He did fine work, and it deserves to be memorialized this way. I grew up in Chicago and, even though I had heard of a number of the studios and the names you mention, I learned a lot about a wonderful, evocative period in Chicago illustration and commercial art. Many thanks, too, to Mary and to Ben's family.

  2. I really like the last "Stations of the Cross" of the post. The desigh of the candles, the contrast and the framing are amazing.

  3. Anonymous5:08 PM

    My Uncle George Lopac was one of the Soldiers in a painting. He was a commercial artist who worked many ads and story boards.

  4. Dear Leif. I too am very taken with the Stations of the Cross and have been able to track down 12 of the 14 stations but can't track down colour images of stations 3 – ‘His first fall’ and 5 – ‘Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross’. The only images I have of these are from the Chicago Tribune magazine which you helpfully referenced. Is there a catalogue of his work or some other way I can access these images? I'd like to use them in connection with a Holy Week devotion. Many thanks.

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