Chester Martin Remembers The Artist Ben Hampton

Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Ben Hampton painting
Ben Hampton painting

After my struggles to finally graduate from the University of Chattanooga - and following four years of active duty in the USAF - I landed a job at Vandsco Poster Company in Chattanooga. I was much ingratiated by this because all my efforts in life had been directed toward "becoming an artist".

Although I had taken Commercial Art classes at Kirkman Vocational High School, and Commercial Design classes at the university, neither of these schools could prepare me (or any other artist) for the exact needs of Vandsco Poster Company.

The "posters" they made were of the "24-sheet" variety, another way of saying "billboards". Vandsco made their money on short runs; they actually lost money by printing long runs. Vandsco, therefore, needed artists who could reduce complicated pictures of products, tourist attractions - even politicians (for their campaign posters), etc., into the simplest number of colors - and painted at the scale of one inch to the foot. This was all done by hand in those days: both the illustrations and the lettering. No computer yet existed that could do any part of the job, but Ben Hampton could do it all.

Ben was a World War II Veteran who had virtually grown up at Vandsco Poster Company after moving from his boyhood Highway 58 farm home north of Chattanooga. He started in the production department where he daily saw the artwork that was sent in from advertising agencies all over the country. His discerning eye could instantly recognize the difference between good and bad work, and he started trying to make pastel drawings in his spare time using this knowledge. These drawings were basically portraits of his co-worker's wives, girlfriends, or children. Ben used to tell me how he would do the same portrait over several times until he got it right - and then charge only $25.00 for it!

Ben fought his way out of the production department finally, after convincing Vandsco owners, Clarence Vincent and Louis Spitzer (Mr. "V", and Mr. "S", of V AND S CO.) that he could benefit them as an "in-house" artist. When I arrived on the scene in 1962, Ben had advanced, and was easily the highest-paid commercial artist in Chattanooga, earning a carefully publicized salary of $200.00 per week! (Ben was a very modest man and would never admit such facts, but his bosses did!) Ben was directed to help me in my new job, and I learned a great deal from him. There was no more helpful or down-to-earth man on the planet!

Beside his family, Ben had two great loves. As a youngster he had grown up on a farm and loved to fish, and he somehow became interested in looking for Native American artifacts as well. We both shared that interest and started spending Saturdays together walking along creek and river banks. On our very first trip to the Hiwassee River we rented a boat and went a short distance on the water before mooring on a very rocky "beach". His eyes were so sharp and "educated" that he found a perfect tomahawk among the very stony area within seconds! I was amazed - and embarrassed - because I had just walked over that very spot! He kept nice objects such as this tomahawk safe inside his house, but a whole area of his back yard was piled with celts, mortars, pestles, and artifacts of lesser degree.

But Ben was beginning to get interested in serious painting as well. Field and Stream magazine had been his constant companion for years, and he admired many of their covers. Those covers served as inspiration, but the subjects he chose to paint were entirely original and local. He started spending his evenings and Sunday afternoons working on paintings of places he knew from his former fishing trips. Paintings like, "Claude's Creek", and "Pondering  Quail" soon emerged which won him great admiration among his then-small group of well-wishers, including myself. His subtle use of color and impeccable design could not be denied. The painting, "Pondering Quail", was actually accepted into one of the Hunter Gallery's (the original name of Hunter Museum of American Art) annual shows. That particular show was notoriously hard for local artists to get into because of keen competition from Atlanta artists. But Ben was gaining a toe-hold and was on his way.

Ben was very methodical, and told me more than once how, while still employed in the Poster business, he spent the first part of every week thinking about what he had done the last weekend, and then, later in the week, he would think about what he wanted to do next weekend. In this way he kept his thinking fresh. He would remember where he used to fish as a boy, and remember that there was an old cabin near the creek. He would then go back to find the same cabin to make a painting of it. In this way, much of Ben's artistic career is simply a documentary of his early life, un-contrived and genuine.

Louis Spitzer, a Vandsco co-owner, got in touch with the Chattanooga News-Free Press, urging them to do a story on Ben, and the writer, Jim Hazard, was so impressed he gave Ben a two-page spread that boosted his career a great leap forward. Ben had earned it all by himself - going from farm-boy, to Commercial Artist, to Fine Artist all by himself alone, with NO schooling in Art. Ben was the epitome of a "Born Artist", and was definitely self-made. Some would call this "American Ingenuity".

Hampton's perceptions were uncanny. His early years as an Outdoorsman enabled him to see things the average person totally misses. In a clump of grass beside an ancient fence post, for example, his eye could separate this year's growth from last year's, plus even earlier dead grass and paint it convincingly. I know a lot about his methodology both as a Commercial Artist and a Fine Artist. It is too bad he did not get the recognition he deserved from the Art Community of the day: he was never once granted a solo show by any of the "big" institutions of the city - to the best of my knowledge.

It is hard to realize that more than a generation has passed since Ben left us, and at so comparatively young an age. His was a household name at that time. Physically small-built and wiry, without an ounce of fat, it made me think he would live forever. He had deservedly (and arguably) sold more of his originals and reproductions (prints) than any other local artist.

I was recently listening to a local radio program when - out of the blue - someone called the program to offer a "Ben Hampton print for sale". The announcer was struck almost speechless for a second before happily exclaiming that he had not heard those words in a long while, and he seemed elated to hear them again. I could virtually hear a communal gasp of pleasure from all of Chattanooga upon hearing Ben's name again. Ben is still among the finest artists ever produced in the Chattanooga area - still greatly missed by the audience he created. His work was found everywhere I went, even in Philadelphia, during the years I was working there.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Ben Hampton
Ben Hampton

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