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Benson wins art commission to commemorate Nashville flood

JACKSON, Tenn.March 12, 2012 – In May 2010 a record flood hit Nashville, Tenn., and much of middle Tennessee. Over the course of a few days, water damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and landmarks, including the Gaylord Opryland Hotel.

More than 20 people died in the floods and tornados that hit the South that weekend.

This February, almost two years after the flood, Union University art professor Lee Benson and his wife Betty won a commission to commemorate the effects of the flood in West Park, west of the heart of Nashville. Four other artists also received commissions to make pieces of art for other areas of the city as part of the Watermarks Project.

Because the art pieces are for a city, the design submission process was more intensive than most, Benson said. In their request for quotation, they had to prove their artistic experience and their knowledge about engineering regulations.

“When you get a metro commission for a big company or a big city, they want to know that you are qualified to build a big structure in the community,” Benson said.

Receiving the commission was the first of many steps toward building the art in the community, a process which will be completed in 2013.

Benson has not fully designed his art yet. First, he and his wife plan to listen to the residents to develop the art around their experiences.

“These people (in West Park) had this event that was in their heart, and when you say, ‘Tell me your story,’ man, do they have a story to tell,” Benson said.

More than 100 out of 400 homes in the community were destroyed in the flood. The damage would have been much worse if it hadn’t been for an abandoned quarry in West Park, which residents before had regarded as an ugly part of the community. The quarry drained much of the rainfall, saving neighborhoods from worse damage, Benson said.

Some residents flew over their neighborhood, turned around and left when they saw the extent of the water coverage. Others moved because they didn’t have the money to rebuild.

“But then there’s another side to it,” Benson said. “This is a boot strap neighborhood. Many West Park residents said, ‘We did not get a lot of attention on the national news, but this is where we’ve lived for generations. This is our home.’ That is the predominant theme.”

Benson said listening to the stories impressed upon his wife and him the importance of developing a timeless work of art, because from now on generations will measure time from the flood.

“We have an idea that (the art) will have to be something that has generational life to it,” he said. “It is critical that this have a generational aspect to it — that this piece 100 years from now will still be a beautiful storyteller in the community.”

One piece of art can tell several stories at once, Benson said, noting ancient civilizations as evidence. He said cultures record their true history in the arts and architecture, and the buildings and art pieces tell the most meaningful stories of the community.

The very best sculptures tell about an event in a way that cannot be written because it contains so many individual stories, Benson said.

“That’s what our sculpture will do,” he said.

By Samantha Adams (’13)

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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