Still painting, still smiling, Betty Benson turns 95, and Mission comes out to celebrate

Betty Benson (left) and Suzie Gibbs of the Mission City Council share a laugh at the celebration for Benson's 95th birthday Wednesday.
Betty Benson (left) and Suzie Gibbs of the Mission City Council share a laugh at the celebration for Benson’s 95th birthday Wednesday.

Charlotte Grunhard says Betty Benson has saved her thousands of dollars.

“[Painting] is cheaper than therapy,” Grunhard joked as she stroked a fine brush dabbed in orange oil paint along the top of the rooster’s comb on her canvas. “She’s always up. She’s never depressed. And she manages all these different personalities. It really is like going to counseling.”

Grunhard is one of the dozens of area residents who duck into Betty Benson’s unassuming storefront on Johnson Drive a few times a week for the refuge of a tight artists’ community. For years, Benson operated the Tole House a couple of blocks away from her current operation. But when a vacancy opened up in the strip of Johnson Drive real estate that Benson owns about a dozen years ago, she decided to relocate. She changed the name from Tole House to the Mission Artist Workshoppe.

Benson’s been painting her own canvases for decades, and has been instructing newcomers in the practice since the 1960s. And she doesn’t show many signs of slowing down. The studio is lined with Benson’s own works, many from the last several months — landscapes, still lifes, portraits.

On Wednesday, the studio was packed not only with paintings but with friends (many of whom also happen to be her tenants), city officials, and grateful burgeoning artists on hand to celebrate Benson’s 95th birthday, which was last Sunday. Mayor Steve Schowengert helped slice up a cake baked by Kathy Fullerton of The Beachery and presented Benson with a plaque proclaiming it Betty Benson Day in Mission. And Benson chatted and grinned and joked and looked to love every second of it.

“When you get older it’s important to make new, young friends,” she said. “Because the old ones die. It’s true!”

That joke brought a smile from Ed Camp, who was setting up at the end of the table where Benson’s painters do their work. He started coming in about a year ago, worried that he probably couldn’t be taught to paint at his age, but hoping he could translate some of the scenes he envisioned in his head onto the canvass. Benson took him through the basics, and soon enough he was filling canvases up himself.

“Betty’s been a wonderful instructor,” he said. “And she’s so sharp. She remembers everyone and everything.”

As for her birthday wish?

“I hope the stock market goes up,” Benson said. “That’d help everybody.

Betty Benson's paintings hang on the walls of her Artist Workshoppe in Mission.
Betty Benson’s paintings hang on the walls of her Artist Workshoppe in Mission.
The proclamation for Betty Benson Day in Mission.
The proclamation for Betty Benson Day in Mission.
Benson blew out the candle on her cake. "You couldn't have gotten 95 candles on there," she said.
Benson blew out the candle on her cake. “You couldn’t have gotten 95 candles on there,” she said.