In a drummer’s world, if they have high technical skill, you say, “They have chops.” The same meaning applies to Williamston visual artist Michael Bennett.

Walk into his spacious Main Street studio and be prepared for a jaw-dropping experience. Circling the room on an upper ledge, hanging from the walls, lining the floor, and leaning on several easels are portraits done in a variety of mediums including oil paint and conte crayon. The images are lifelike — some are so realistic they look like studio photographs.

But if you compare them with the photo Bennett took of the model, the painting breaths with life that positively pulses.

Some of Bennett’s portraits are full body paintings; others are partial sketches reminiscent of the work of old masters. He paints the young, old, beautiful, and craggy. “Everything’s got a beauty about it,” says Bennett, pointing to a decrepit man in a stocking cap with large ears, missing teeth, and pointy nose and chin.

A study of his work reveals a mastery with drawing, paint application and color that leaves one breathless. The skin tones and its lush, silken quality in two paintings of a dark-haired woman are so real, one’s dying to ask about her diet, her lifestyle.

A painting of a priest from an old black and white photograph, is on Bennett’s easel. It’s a challenge because he has to interpret it in color. This means studying images to look for skin tones that will lend life and depth to the two-dimensional image.

Portraits are only one part of Bennett’s portfolio. He also is a landscape and still-life painter. Four massive paintings in various stages — the largest measuring 4-feet by a little over 7-feet, represent various scenes from North Carolina from the mountains to the coast. He is enamored by stormy skies and seas, majestic mountain settings and tranquil ponds. Cumulous and stratus clouds fill the picture plain. Verdant greenery instills the scenes with oxygen and supplies havens of rest for the viewer. The size and subject matter call for the viewer to crawl in and nap, stare into the heavens, or, for the artist, to capture the scene in plein aire fashion.

What of Bennett’s journey that led to such tranquility and beauty, such chops?

The 61-year-old artist was born in Robersonville into a tight knit family.

“My parents, they stood behind me,” says Bennett. His late-brother Ronnie and he were very close. In high school, Bennet was given a scholarship to study at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. He was there for one summer and one fall session and made connections with other artists who inspired him, including Ben Long who created a nationally known fresco, “The Last Supper,” in a small church in Glendale Springs, North Carolina. Bennett was one of his apprentices who helped mix the plaster for the fresco.

“I painted in the afternoons in the mountains every day for a couple of months,” says Bennett of his time there.

As to education, though, Bennett is mostly self-taught. He was born with the talent and spent time reading art books and asking questions of other artists. When he thinks back about his inspirations, he remembers a teacher, Miss Nellie Council. “She gave me my first art lesson in the fourth grade,” he says. “It was watercolor, and that really inspired me. And she kept me focused.”

It was a painting of his cat.

It sounds like Bennett had a pretty smooth journey to arrive where he is today, a gifted, humble painter. But that’s not true. While he is quick to point out all the positives in his life, he has no shame in revealing a life that was riddled with substance abuse. He fought serious drug and alcohol addictions before becoming sober and clean five years ago. He gave his life over to God and began reconstructing a life that focused on his talent.

Today, he is represented in multiple North Carolina galleries and opens a show of his work at the Dare County Arts Council Oct. 4. He plans on exhibiting landscapes and portraits to showcase his eclectic talent and inspirations.

The sign painter by day spends nights in his gallery painting fine art.

“Each day after work I can’t wait to start,” Bennett says. “I am excited all the time.” He looks forward to when his day job is just about fine art painting and loosening up to become more expressionistic in style.

Plans are on tap to host life drawing classes at his studio with live models.

“I don’t like working from photographs,” Bennett says. He believes it holds the work back from the true power of life portraits. Yet, life flows through the strokes of his brush because Bennett not only has chops, he’s got soul.

Mary Ellen Riddle has been writing the Coast’s art column for more than 20 years and brings to her work a BFA in painting from East Carolina University and a profound passion for the role the arts play in society.

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