Posts filed under ‘Mid Century Modern’
“Are you the artist Janet Bennett?” Bennett is a striking and elegant woman who looks quite at home in the colorful surroundings of Robert, the restaurant housed within the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan. But perhaps the question should have been, “are you the artist who designed the iconic tile murals in the Los Angeles Airport?”
The murals have been widely attributed to Charles Kratka who was Bennett’s immediate supervisor. “When I found out about the obituary for him in the L.A. Times which said that Charles Kratka was the designer of the LAX murals, I freaked out.” By her own admission, she’d never claimed credit for the murals which were installed in 1961, when she was working for the architectural firm of Pereira & Luckman.
Her assignment, given to her by Kratka, was to design a mural that would distract people from how long the tunnels were. The 2007 L.A. Times obituary mentions that Kratka told his children that the changing colors of the mural were to reflect the changing seasons, but Bennett said that actually her concept was to express the changing terrain as seen from a transcontinental flight, “from ocean to ocean.”
“I started with blue on one side, then green, then into earth colors, then,
in the middle, I had one red element; then the colors reverse. My idea was that you’d see the same colors going from the ocean to the middle of the country, over the prairie, then back to the ocean.” The mural has been featured in both film and TV, from The Graduate to Mad Men. “It’s been used as a vehicle to show people coming in and out of Los Angles; it’s an ideal background because of the procession of colors.” Overall, Bennett created mosaic designs for five terminal buildings found in the airport.
Bennett grew up in Detroit; her father was a painter. He discouraged her from becoming an artist due to concerns about making a living. “He had been successful as a painter, but there came a time when he had to think about money, so he went into automobile design. For him, (designing for automobiles) was like interior design for me. He was okay at it, but he didn’t have a passion for it because he was a painter, as I was a sculptor, and am now a painter.”
Bennett studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art which is known as one of America’s leading architecture and design schools, with its graduates and faculty being described by the New York Times as having a “profound effect on the physical environment of this country.” Bennett majored in sculpting and upon graduating, came to New York City to work on commissions, one of which was a bronze sculpture for the department store B. Altman & Co. Once completed, she was called to Madrid for further study before finding herself back in the states, working in architecture.
“It was an ideal job for someone like me.” Her work took her to Los Angeles, San Salvador, “I love anything Spanish,” San Francisco, Honolulu, and back to New York. “My sculpture commissions were always in different mediums, using different materials – whether it was steel, or
plastic, or wood – I really had to learn as I was doing. I’ve gone to a couple shows at this museum (The Museum of Art and Design) and I’ve thought, ‘I’ve done that once, but this artist has made a whole career out of it.’ If I had stayed with one thing, people could look at it and say, ‘that’s a Janet Bennett.’”
In addition to the LAX murals, Bennett was one of the contributors to San
Francisco’s BART stations in the late 60’s and early 70’s when a panel of art professionals commissioned murals and other art for nearly all of the then newly designed stations.“The tiles for the San Francisco murals were ceramic, as opposed to the Italian glass used at the airport.” When she wasn’t doing mural work or designing decorative art, she worked in interior design. “That’s where I ran into some restrictions. When I was doing the commissioned artwork, I pretty much had full reign. With the murals, there were no influences other than driven by theme.”
At 83, Bennett is now working in acrylics. “I like things that are malleable. That’s what I like about oils. Mixing them; they’re nice and squishy.” She works both in New York City and “on the Island” (Long Island) and finds inspiration everywhere.
“Artists are much more observant. I walk my dog in the park and things are happening. A big crane is taking something down, a people thing is happening, and no one is looking. I’m always looking. If you have an artistic temperament, you’re sort of a voyeur.”
I ask her if she’s tried to contact the airport about receiving credit for the LAX murals. ”Anytime I try to follow up, they say, ‘can you document it?’ It was so many years ago; I’ve lived in so many places, thrown out files, or books, or photographs. Everyone I worked with was older than I, and they’re not around anymore.”
Bennett is quick to point out that she wouldn’t have minded if the architecture firm had been credited. “Working for an architectural firm is like working for a fashion house – you can design it, but it goes out under the name of the firm.” The discomfort that Bennett feels is in having another person receive credit for a design she conceived. She sighs, “I never thought about publicity. I remember a magazine contacting me (after creating the mural) but I was busy with something else.”
Bennett has been creating art for over sixty years and is still evolving, still exploring design, color and texture. Perhaps, if you find yourself passing through the midcentury mosaic tunnels in LAX, you’ll find yourself thinking, “I know what that is. That’s a Bennett.”
Micheline Auger is a playwright and freelance writer living in New York who loves art, color, and all things Modwalls.