"CraftsPEOPLE: In Their Own Words"

Below, "Getting Started" by Curtis Benzle, one of many stories that will appear in "CraftsPEOPLE: In Their Own Words," a book I'm co-editing with David Bacharach. The book will be published in 2016, with all proceeds to benefit CERF (Craft Emergency Relief Fund). The purpose of the book is to document the American craft field with stories of the lives of professional craft show artists, told by the artists themselves. 

"Leaf Sconce" porcelain light by Curtis Benzle of Benzle Porcelain. 

"Leaf Sconce" porcelain light by Curtis Benzle of Benzle Porcelain. 

"Getting Started" by Curtis Benzle.

Copyright 2015 Curtis Benzle. All rights reserved.

Starting anything is always the hardest part and my career as an artist and American Craft Council (ACC) exhibitor was no different.

The year was 1982 I believe and the ACC Rhinebeck show was my target destination.  I had been nipping around the edges of going full-time for years and I knew that if this dream were to ever come true I would need to reach out to a larger audience.  This was a very simple realization, but presented me with the enormous challenge of maneuvering from near-poverty and obscurity to success on a larger stage.

Challenge number one, being accepted to exhibit at ACC Rhinebeck, actually went off well.  Reasonably good work supported by fine photos and I was on my way---sort of.

But please, let me set the stage better by going back in time to 1980;

After an abrupt departure from my teaching position at the Savannah College of Art & Design following a severe “altercation” between my then wife and the SCAD president, I found myself in Columbus, Ohio with parenthood looming a scant three months off.  I had located a cozy rental in the DMZ between the socio/economic and student ghettos near Ohio State and, desperate for income, took the qualifying exam to become a U.S. Postal Employee.  Months went by filled with studio construction and supported by sub-par, part-time employment when a notice arrived from the Postal Service---“You’re hired!”

My Postal Service position was a good fit with my nascent studio career; nights at the P. O. and days in the studio.  All was going well and then opportunity knocked again in the form of my ACC Rhinebeck acceptance.

As a new employee at the Postal Service, I had to go through an initial vetting period.  This included no time off---for anything.  OK…a day or two a week but certainly not enough time off to travel to Rhinebeck, do the show and get home again.  “Career Development” at the U. S. Postal Service was clearly confined to a U. S. Postal Service career.

This dilemma was compounded by the fact that I had no clear idea of what might actually happen at Rhinebeck.  Daydreams of stunning sales success fluctuated with nightmares of rejection and financial ruin.  I had to take a chance on the show but couldn’t really let go of the financial security the Post Office promised.  I had the proverbial bird in my hand with the Post Office and was too nervous to release it in order to take a shot at the bush. Try as I might, a rational solution eluded me so I did what I had to do….. I lied.

Weeks later, with a truly devious plan prepared, inventory prepared and our trusty Toyota station wagon packed to the hilt, I showed up for work at the Post Office two days prior to the start of Rhinebeck.  My cohort (aka then wife, Suzan Boutz) and I had carefully scripted what would happen next.  As I sat innocently perched over a letter sorting machine in the bowels of the main, Columbus, Ohio postal facility, the union steward called my name over the intercom; “Benzle---report to the office”.  Trying to appear appropriately nervous was not a problem---I was!  Despite the hours of practiced deception, now that the moment had actually arrived I was petrified.  Was this summons simply a part of our plan or had the lie been perceived and I was entering into my final, postal confrontation?  I entered the office knowing only that the plan was either underway or exposed.  Multiple managers and union brass were assembled and eyed me gravely as I entered. 

……………“Your wife is on the phone”……………

As I raised the phone to my ear I knew what Suzan was supposed to say next; “Curt…your father has had a heart attack”.  OK……. on script…….but what I didn’t expect was the sobbing voice on the other end of the line.  Oh God!....  had my lie karmically killed my Dad?  I knew what we were doing was bad; perhaps the worst thing I had ever done…but could it have possibly been that bad?  As my skin tone turned to chalk, the assembled Post Office officialdom showed real concern.

As I hung up and struggled to regain a modicum of composure the lie continued to flow forth.  “My Dad had suffered a massive stroke and was in the hospital, hanging on by a thread”.  Dad was struggling to stay alive just long enough to say his goodbyes.  Job or no job I needed to leave for South Carolina immediately. 

Management conferred.  “Rules are rules but geez….this kid’s Dad is on death’s door step”.  The judgment came down; “OK Benzle….we’ll give you four days.”

By the time I arrived home Suzan was ready to roll.  What was with the tears????  Always “dramatic” by nature, she explained the tears were a last minute improvisation just in case we happened to be on speaker phone…...

Following an all-nighter drive, we arrived in Rhinebeck, NY just in time to set up.  Being blurry-eyed and behind schedule actually helped defuse our rookie nerves and as the buyers descended, our amateurish display still garnered a goodly number of orders.  As the wholesale days wore on we were happy, but trouble loomed on the horizon.  Retail remained but I was out of time.  My four day reprieve was nearing its end.  I put in a desperate call to Suzan’s sister Pam and persuaded her to forego Friday classes at Ohio State and fly to New York. 

That done, I called my bosses at the Post Office with a bit of additional “bad news”.  As my story went, it seemed my Dad had rallied a bit upon my arrival and, stubborn to the end, continued to “linger”.  However, an early morning doctor conference confirmed, “Today was the day”.   Acting on this pronouncement, funeral arrangements were underway and…………”if only I could have two more days”.

To my amazement, two more days were added to my “unauthorized time off”---precisely enough time for me to meet Pam at LaGuardia, swap our car with her and grab my flight back to Columbus; arriving home just in time for my Saturday shift.

But there’s more…..and it actually get worse!

As I entered the Postal facility that Saturday afternoon, carrying the full psychological burden of so many horrible lies, I was pretty much ready for lightning to strike me dead.  So as I approached the time card rack and saw an envelope instead of my card I was not terribly surprised.  Of course they had figured me out and of course this was the notice exposing my fraud; thus ending my secure employment with the U.S. Postal Service with the sting of humiliation.   Even my growing awareness of other employees eyeing me from a distance seemed justifiable penance.  I was a bad person and other people take a certain delight in seeing bad people punished.

But this envelop seemed thick.  Too thick for a simple pink slip???  My mind reeled. Could the Postal Service sue me?  Had I violated not only God’s law but Federal statute as well?????  Panic ensued as I gingerly opened the envelope.  Like jackals in the night my former, fellow employees moved in to witness my horrid demise.  

I felt hands on my shoulder as the opened envelope revealed not a pink slip,,, not a summons…….but money!  It was stuffed with $5’s and $10’s donated by the wonderful folks I worked with to help defray the monetary pain of my Dad’s demise.   The only good thing I can say about what followed was that the very real tears that flowed from my eyes were blessedly misperceived as tears of gratitude instead of shame.

Days later, when Suzan and Pam arrived back home with several months’ worth of wholesale orders backed up by a pile of retail cash, I knew we were on our way! 

……….But not without one, final, dirty deed….

I showed up for work early the next day and advised the managers that sadly, my Mom was not doing well following the untimely passing of my Dad.  “Good son” that I was, I had made the difficult decision to move South to help her deal with the grief. 

These Post Office guys were the greatest!  With a pat on the back, a handshake and an offer to be rehired when things settled down, my Postal career quietly ended as that of a full-time artist began!

As I said initially, starting anything is the hardest part.  Am I proud of my manipulative, lying ways?  Not at all.  But would I do it all again if it meant being able to live a creative life, be an active part of raising my family and sharing in this wonderful community of artists?  Probably so…..

Curtis Benzle

PS  My Dad turned ninety-six this year and to celebrate we traveled with him to visit Yellowstone National Park.  Promise……

"Blaze," a porcelain bowl by Curtis Benzle of Benzle Porcelain.