Young artists of Van Go unveil 20 new benches, share what they learned from their work

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For Van Go apprentice artist Barack Bennett-Robinson, drawing from emotion is part of making meaningful art.

Bennett-Robinson created a bench for local conservation organization Monarch Watch. The bench memorializes Sarah Schmidt, who had worked at Monarch Watch for several years. Sarah, her husband Tyler and their daughter Lula were killed last year while camping in Iowa.

Through client meetings, Bennett-Robinson said he could extract details that contributed to who Sarah was.

“I have to give it to my clients: they didn’t put that much pressure on me,” Bennett-Robinson said. “They said really just the bench itself, like all of the components that they wanted me to add, that would be enough for her — just to represent her.”

After being at Van Go for two years, Bennett-Robinson said he’s come a long way from entering with little art experience. He along with 19 other young artists revealed benches they created for clients on Friday evening during Van Go’s annual Benchmark unveiling ceremony.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Barack Bennett-Robinson, at center, waits for his turn to unveil his bench.

Van Go, an arts-based program, social service and employment agency for youth, each summer holds its Benchmark program. Van Go’s Summer JAMS apprentice artists ages 14-18 are paired with a commission client — whether it be a business, individual or organization. They dedicate themselves to an eight-week process to design and create a custom bench.

Usually, the unveiling is held outdoors in the Van Go parking lot, but with temperatures in the 100s, everyone packed inside the Van Go building and eagerly awaited the final unveiling. The turnout reflected the packed nearby parking lots and cars lined up and down the neighboring streets.

As artists one-by-one whipped the tarps off their masterpieces, gasps, applause and cheering ensued.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Margene Swarts, at left, hugs artist Gus Cordova. Cordova created a bench for Meadowlark Estates in memory of Swarts’ late husband Alan Swarts.

Margene Swarts felt a rush of emotion overcome her when she caught her first glance of the bench made in her husband’s memory. She and her husband, Alan Swarts, lived together at Meadowlark Estates, an independent living community in Lawrence, before he died in May.

Margene said the bench, created by apprentice artist Gus Cordova, truly captures the core of their experience living at Meadowlark Estates.

“It’s so special,” Margene said. “Gus captured what we wanted in terms of the games they do and the chef and the meadowlark on the front and the sunflower on the back. It’s just the essence of living there — the different people and all the friends we’ve made and the sense of community.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

Van Go artists have been producing the iconic benches, each uniquely made, since 1999. The 460 Van Go benches created to date adorn spaces across Lawrence and Kansas, and even other states, such as Washington and North Carolina. 

Never had Van Go produced a bench for a client outside of the United States, however — until now.

Apprentice artist Davon Davis created Van Go’s first international bench for a company called Draiver. The bench will be moved to Mexico City.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Davon Davis, standing at center, created Van Go’s first bench commissioned by a client to be moved outside the country. The bench will be moved to Mexico City for a company called Draiver.

Davis graduated from Lawrence High School in May, and Friday marked his final Benchmark Unveiling Ceremony as a Summer JAMS apprentice artist. His last time creating a bench in the summer program made Van Go history, and he said he appreciates the positive impact Van Go had on his life.

“When I started, it was in the middle of the pandemic, and I had no idea what was going on,” Davis said. “It was hard to make friends and all that with school being out and everything. I got here and I just quickly made relationships with a whole bunch of different people, and it’s just been fun.”

Apprentice artist Oliver Elwell created a bench for Kansas Biological Survey and Center for Ecological Research, sponsored by Debbie Baker. The bench depicts life that lies beneath the surface of an ecosystem, Elwell explained.

While working closely with his clients, he gained an abundance of knowledge. Now, he can spit fun facts about nature, rattling off worm species and noting that lily pads do in fact have root systems. And he certainly dressed on theme with his commissioned bench Friday.

“I love nature, and I love green, so this was just a perfect bench for me,” Elwell said. “I got to explore more of the rendering style that I was going for and render the different animals and try to get the flow together and seem like it was like an ecosystem. I’m really proud of my bench.”

Throughout the Benchmark process, Elwell said he was able to practice life skills, such as time management. More importantly, however, he learned from Van Go how to balance personal health and relationships — to take care of the person behind the art.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Oliver Elwell kneels in front of his bench, which was commissioned for Kansas Biological Survey and Center for Ecological Research sponsored by Debbie Baker.

As he heads into his senior year at Lawrence High, he’s considering what could be next up in his life journey.

“It got me actually thinking about my future, like maybe I want to do something more with nature and art,” Elwell said. “I feel like this is just opening my path to my future.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Van Go.Co-Executive Directors Kristen Malloy, at left, and Eliza Darmon speak during Friday’s ceremony.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Davon Davis’ mother, Niquita Davis, records him as he gives a speech during Friday’s ceremony.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Each artist received a drumroll before their highly anticipated bench reveal.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Apprentice artist Eden Faust gives a speech during Friday’s ceremony.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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