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Arts & Life

Photos Hidden Away For Decades Provide An Intimate Portrait of Thomas Hart Benton At Work In His Kansas City Studio

In late 1955, a private club hired painter Thomas Hart Benton to create a small mural for its Kansas City meeting space. A photographer spent several months photographing Benton at work. Most of the negatives stayed out of sight -- until now.

Nick Vedros didn’t know what to expect when his uncle, Michael Mardikes, handed him a box of photo negatives. What he found inside took his breath away. More than 60 years ago, his uncle had captured hundreds of images of Thomas Hart Benton, the famed painter, in the process of creating a mural.

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Mardikes published an essay about Benton in This Month Magazine. It included several photographs he took in Benton's studio. In 1966, you could pick up the publication for 15 cents.

Vedros, a commercial photographer in Kansas City, quickly arranged a visit with Mardikes, who is 93, and lives in an apartment with his wife Myrtia near the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

“You've given me close to a thousand negatives and I've been going through these for weeks,” Vedros told his uncle. “And Mike, you have some phenomenal stuff. I love what you shot."

Mardikes was 29 in 1955 when he began visiting Thomas Hart Benton in his studio in Kansas City’s Roanoke Neighborhood. An avid photographer, he brought along his camera and he spent hours photographing the artist.

“I could show up almost any time,” Mardikes remembers. “Sometimes I’d get there before noon. Sometimes after noon. I was always welcome.”

Benton’s routine was like clockwork — and he’d end each day with a glass of whiskey.

“He’d start at eight in the morning and he always quit at five,” Mardikes says. “Five o’clock is when he got his drink and five o’clock is when he quit.”

Mardikes says the painter was always deep in thought.

“His head is mostly into art all the time even when he’s not painting or anything,” Mardikes says. “He’s thinking. He’s always thinking. So when he goes back to work he’s carrying with him a bunch of ideas he wants to test out.”

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Julie Denesha
After a box of negatives revealed a cache of images from Thomas Hart Benton's studio, Nick Vedros (left) reached out to his uncle Michael Mardikes to find out more.

The late 1950s was a productive time for Benton, who is credited as one of the leaders of the regionalism movement in American art. He turned out several murals in five years, including ones for the Truman Presidential Library, in Independence, Missouri; Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri; and three for the New York State Power Authority commemorating projects in Massena, New York, and Niagara Falls, New York.

Mardikes worked the night shift as a foreman at an auto plant — a job that freed his days to pursue his passion for photography. He caught Benton in the beginning stages of a commission for the River Club in downtown Kansas City. It’s called “Trading at Westport Landing,” and sometimes known as "Old Kansas City." When the painting was unveiled, Benton said he had wanted to create a historic scene at the spot on Quality Hill where the River Club stood.

“If you walk out of the River Club onto that bluff, you could see the Kaw River, the Missouri River,” Mardikes says.

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Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site
“Trading at Westport Landing” was commissioned by The River Club in Kansas City, Missouri. The egg tempera on Canvas mural was unveiled on May 12th, 1956.

Benton's finished mural depicts a hillside scene where a trader sits — striking a bargain with a Native American man. Conestoga wagons and steamboats crisscross the landscape.

In 1966, Mardikes published several of his photographs to accompany an essay he wrote about Benton for a small magazine called This Month in Kansas City. But the bulk of his negatives remained unseen until Mardikes handed them off to his nephew.

With so many negatives to examine, Vedros enlisted the help of Dan White, a friend, fellow photographer and master printer.

Mardike's access to Benton is a photographer's dream, White says.

“Mike had a special relationship with him, so he had the kind of time that, as a photographer, you love to be able to go back and go back and go back,” White says.

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Julie Denesha
Master printer Dan White carefully examines one of 35 prints selected from Mardikes' box of Benton negatives.

After sifting through the negatives, Vedros and White selected about 35 to print. An exhibit is in the works; the next step is framing the final prints and finding a venue to display them.

Decades have passed since Mardikes took the photos. But White says he remembers every detail.

“Mike's memory is so sharp,” White says. “We would show him photographs and he could tell you exactly what was going on, what Benton was thinking, the discussions they had — including the kind of tobacco he would smoke in his pipe. Mike just knew everything and could recall it easily. That was fascinating.”

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Mike Mardikes
A mirror in Thomas Hart Benton's studio gave photographer Michael Mardikes the perfect opportunity to take a self portrait with his Nikon rangefinder. Photograph © Michael Mardikes 2021

Sitting on the back deck of his home, with a view of the Kansas City skyline in the distance, Nick Vedros says this project came at the perfect time. It was an opportunity to connect with his uncle, work with an old friend and save a piece of history.

“I've enjoyed working with Dan on this and if anything good came out of COVID, it was the ability to work together with masks on while we're editing,” Vedros says. “It's just been a fantastic process for us. Something good came out of COVID.”

And something very good has come from an old box of photo negatives, forgotten for decades, but now opening a window into a celebrated painter's life and studio.

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