Q&A: Betsy Benefield, street artist


Susan Du/Daily Senior Staffer

Homeless artist Betsy Benefield sells abstract calligraphy paintings under the Davis El stop to support herself.

Kelly Hwu, Reporter

Certain days of the week between mid-afternoon to sundown, Betsy Benefield sits underneath Evanston’s Davis El station painting on canvases with acrylic paint.

Benefield carries a sign reading, “I did not want to beg so I drew this dog. Disabled and an artist.”

In order to pay her bills, Benefield applies her artistic background to selling paintings rather than begging passers-by for money. She spoke to The Daily on Monday about her life, art and dreams for the future.

The Daily Northwestern: What encouraged you to sell your paintings in public?

Betsy Benefield: In July of last year, my daughter turned 18 and child support services stopped sending me money, so the only thing I received was Social Security. I did not know what to do and I said, “I don’t want to be out there holding a cup.” I’m on disability for mental illness and am unable to work in a job setting, but I have a gift in art. Everybody loves watching an artist and I thought, “I’ll go out and sell art on the street.”

The Daily: Do you have a background in painting?

Benefield: I was once homeless for two and a half years and was not treated very well. I never accomplished what I wanted to do, which was to be an illustrator. I used to be a teacher aide but I wasn’t making enough under government support. Since I was a child, I have had a talent in art. However, I have high myopia vision because I had cataracts. My mom told me when she was alive that the doctors recognized it when I was three years old. I would get so close to the TV and I couldn’t see past my nose. I majored in art in college and graduated, but I was very slow in college.

The Daily: What do you paint?

Benefield: I have a theme that is abstract calligraphy. I outline my paintings in calligraphy and sometimes I’ll put in images. Occasionally, I’ll use glow-in-the-dark paint and glitter too.

The Daily: How much do you sell your paintings for?

Benefield: My 2-by-2s sell for $10 and my 3-by-3s sell for $20. I have one here that is about 7-by-7 and I’m selling it for $60. Next is $80, then $100, then $150. I even have a $200 painting that took over a week for me to paint. My pricing is based on the quality of the canvas and the quality of work I do on it.

The Daily: How often do your paintings get sold?

Benefield: Not every day do they get sold … approximately one or two a week. Sometimes none.

The Daily: What are people’s reactions when they see you outside painting?

Benefield: I get a lot of compliments. There is some criticism. Some say that they think they saw something from my painting somewhere else. Most of the time I get compliments. Some ignore.

The Daily: What do you hope to be doing in the long-term?

Benefield: I’m hoping someday I can open a gallery. I will not turn away a single disabled or homeless person who wants to bring their art to my gallery. I will sell them. I will be going by my own license, so they won’t have to worry about permits and they will get most of the commission. I don’t want to be supported by the government.

The Daily: Why do you choose to be at the Davis El station?

Benefield: I chose this corner because police officers in Chicago will confiscate my stuff if I do what I do there. I started coming to the Davis station this past July. I think what I’m doing is far better than holding a cup.

I want to make it enjoyable for people and I don’t want to bother them. It’s their choice if they want to give a donation, buy a painting or share canned foods or toiletries. I’ve had some great moments, and I’ve survived.