Globe folk artist exhibits paintings at Miami Art Works
As far back into his childhood as he can remember, Globe native Jeph Bender was interested in animation. He was especially fond of books showing how Disney characters were drawn and how they were put into sequence for animated films.
“I was struggling with staying focused in school because I was focusing on drawing,” Bender said. “My mom would say, ‘Hey, you need to do your homework.’ So I’d go upstairs to do my homework, but I was tracing in my Disney book instead of doing my homework. My mom would open the door and say, ‘What are you doing? You can’t get your homework done drawing.’”
As happens all too often, as Bender got older, life got in the way of his creative aspirations. His schoolwork started winning out over his desire to become a cartoonist. After he graduated from Globe High School in 2003, he enlisted in the US Navy and was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
After the Navy, Bender attended the Art Institute of Phoenix, earning a bachelor’s degree in culinary management in 2018.
“I’ve always been a chef at heart, too. I always cooked for my family and friends through high school,” Bender said. But just as he was starting to build a career in the restaurant business in Phoenix, the COVID pandemic hit, and restaurants shut down in Arizona and across the nation.
Temporarily out of work, Bender returned to Globe. Throughout the changes in his life, he had never lost his desire to draw and paint.
“When Arizona shut down during the pandemic, I was working in the restaurant business, and they all closed. It was a very bad experience, very negative for me. So, I got home, I got a canvas and just started painting,” he said.
Bender started by experimenting with primary colors and primary shapes. Then he began putting them together to see what images developed out of those basic ingredients. Eventually, he started adding more detail and instilling his paintings with narrative elements that pulled viewers into the unique scenes that Bender depicted on the canvas.
“Things started slowly coming together with what I wanted my images to look like. Primary shapes can become the shapes of other things – faces, trees, houses,” he said, adding that the more he worked, the more “in tune with painting” he became. “Every canvas is an opportunity. Just like any hobby, I think – if you keep finding more interesting things about it, that’s what makes it fun and something great to do.”
By 2021, Bender had created a body of work big enough to consider having his own solo show. He found an enthusiastic partner in the Lifeboat Coffee Co. in Phoenix, where he has now shown his work in two exhibitions.
“It was a very good experience. Here’s a guy doing his coffee shop, we had a great relationship, and we said, ‘Yeah, let’s try it out and see what happens,’” Bender said.
“People gave me encouragement, and that encouragement just kept building up and I was able to continue to paint, I kept developing more time to paint. I was still successful with whatever else I had to get done, so it became a lifestyle, and here I am back at home helping my parents out, and I’m still keeping the art on the side, it’s still a tool.”
A big dose of that encouragement came from Bender’s native Globe-Miami area when Michael Twenty-Three from the Miami Arts Commission happened across Bender selling his canvases, as well as furniture he had painted, at a swap meet in Globe.
Lob Instagon from the Miami Arts Commission said, “We met Jeph out at the swap meet in Globe a couple years ago and were really enamored with his work. He was painting furniture and selling paintings, and Michael Twenty-Three bought a piece from him. We were all ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ over the piece Michael bought.”
That canvas is now on display at Lyric Soda Fountain in Miami. Bender was also invited to participate in the Miami Arts Commission’s Trash Can Painting Project, the result of which can be seen year-round at the corner of Sullivan and Keystone streets.
Earlier this year, the commission started talking to Bender about doing a solo show at Miami Art Works gallery. That show, titled “Eclectic Journey: Paintings by Jeph Bender,” is now on display at the gallery through Dec. 3, 2023. It consists of 31 paintings, four pieces of furniture and four ceramic pieces.
“We’re really happy. The pieces that he brought are awesome,” Instagon said. “To me, it really stands out as folk art, not only with the style but also in the pricing and the affordability of it. Each piece has its own narrative. You look at each piece, and it takes you to a different place. Each piece is really different.”
Amanda Rae, also from the commission, seconded Instagon’s sentiment. “I think that there’s a great narrative in his work,” she said. “Obviously, the shape and color are very dynamic, but it takes you somewhere else.”
Bender said that while he agrees that his creative style falls within the realm of “folk art,” he prefers the term “bohemian.”
“It’s a lifestyle. When you find the time, do it. You gotta step outside the box. Be original. I didn’t want to copy anybody else. There’s all kinds of books and YouTube now, so I knew I had to be unique. I knew if I wanted to do something, I had to do it in the rawest form and just keep messing with it.”
He added that he’s learned over time that it’s important to just keep working on his art, to keep challenging himself, and to keep being inspired.
“It’s learning how to have self-control because it’s all about foundation when you do anything – building, cooking,” he said. “Culinary school taught me that foundation is everything. You don’t have to do so many corrections later.”
“Eclectic Journey: The Creations of Jeph Bender” is being shown at Miami Art Works (509 Sullivan Street, Miami AZ) through Dec. 3, 2023. The gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.