Gordon Bensley, 84; advanced the teaching of visual arts

By Brett M. Rhyne
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2009

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Students entering the Phillips Academy, Andover, classroom of Gordon “Diz’’ Bensley in the latter half of the 20th century encountered a visual arts instructor who was avant-garde in both his ideas about creativity and his methods of teaching it.

“Diz helped me and thousands of other students understand that first comes learning to see, then making art,’’ blogged Tim Dempsey, who studied with Mr. Bensley at the Andover school for three semesters in the 1970s.

Art education at the academy has “often been innovative,’’ wrote art reporter Christine Temin in the Globe in 1991. She credited Mr. Bensley with introducing photography into the curriculum at the school. At the time, “debate still raged over whether [photography] was art,’’ Temin wrote.

Mr. Bensley, an Andover graduate who was appointed instructor in art at the school in 1949, died of complications of a stroke and heart attack at Lawrence General Hospital on July 2. A longtime resident of Andover, Mr. Bensley was 84.

Born in 1924, Mr. Bensley grew up in Summit, N.J. After graduating from Andover in 1943, he served in the US Army’s 11th Armored Division. He earned a Purple Heart in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry in action.

The son of a physician, Mr. Bensley first considered a career in medicine. However, while in Paris awaiting his return home following World War II, he attended L’Ecole des Beaux Arts and worked in the studio of cubist painter Georges Braque. That exposure to cubism, with its emphasis on seeing multiple perspectives simultaneously, triggered his interest in modern art.

After graduating from Yale University in 1949 with a degree in philosophy, he briefly attended the Institute of Design in Chicago, where architect Serge Chermayeff reinforced his inclination toward modern art.

The nickname Diz came from Mr. Bensley’s penchant for drawing Disney characters during his high school years.

“He was accepted to work at Disney after Phillips Academy, but the Army grabbed him,’’ said his wife of 59 years, Audrey, a ceramic art teacher at Andover since 1950. “Instead, he drew Mickey Mouse on tanks. When hostilities ended, he drove to Paris in a jeep with Donald Duck on it.’’

During his 43-year tenure at Andover, where he twice served as art department chairman, Mr. Bensley was at the forefront of many significant developments in art instruction at the private boarding high school.

Initially with the guidance of Bartlett H. Hayes Jr., director of Andover’s Addison Gallery of American Art, and fellow art teacher and artist Patrick Morgan, Mr. Bensley helped the department grow from two to 12 members. It also expanded to include ceramics, filmmaking, painting, photography, and sculpture.

Mr. Bensley pioneered the use of audio-visual media in secondary education.

In 1954, assisted by technician Aloysius “Lolo’’ Hobausz, he started the school’s Audio Visual Center, which enabled photography, art, and film to be used in classroom communication.

He and Hobausz introduced to America the “slide tape,’’ a technology that synchronized audio tape with a set of carousel slide projectors. Slide tapes had been employed in Europe since the Victorian era, and were enjoying a renaissance there in the 1950s.

“A scripted lesson, including music and sound effects, was captured on tape along with subsonic pulses, which triggered the stack of projectors,’’ Dempsey recalled. “As we learned to see, a magnificent show across a Panavision-width screen accompanied the learning. From simple cross-fades to split-image effects and cascades now seen on Jumbotrons the world around, Diz reinvented the learning experience.’’

In 1963, Mr. Bensley led the effort to establish the school’s Arts and Communications Center. The complex included small and large auditoriums, audio-visual facilities, and art studios.

“The building was a catalyst, stimulating all kinds of creative endeavor on the Hill,’’ Frederick S. Allis Jr. wrote in his 1979 work, “Youth from Every Quarter: A Bicentennial History of Phillips Academy, Andover.’’

In that year, Mr. Bensley received a Distinguished Secondary School Teaching Award from Harvard University. He served as a member of the National Humanities Faculty from 1973 through 1976, and served on the committee for Advanced Placement in Art for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.

“Diz instilled an enduring love of photography and the desire to see uniquely,’’ recalled Josh Russo, a photography and filmmaking student of Mr. Bensley’s between 1989 and 1991.

Mr. Bensley supplemented his teaching with professional photography. In 1978, he and Hobausz opened Dizlo Studios, a fashion photography house on Newbury Street. They later moved the studio to Andover and invited students to participate. “[Diz] created an advanced photography course where he taught the techniques of the professional studio to 11th- and 12th-graders,’’ Dempsey said. “I know of two of my closest friends from back in the day who became professional photographers.’’

Several of Mr. Bensley’s students went on to make significant contributions to the art world, including painters Frank Stella, Carroll Dunham, and Peter Halley; sculptors Carl Andre, Mel Kendrick, and Wade Saunders; and photographer and filmmaker Hollis Frampton.

“He never said I; it was always we,’’ Mrs. Bensley recalled. “We were very lucky. The school believed in us. We could design our own courses. What’s better than that?’’

Mr. Bensley retired from Andover in 1992 and joined Boston’s Fenway Studios.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Bensley leaves two sons, Chris of Andover and Zach of Hamilton; two daughters, Wendy Percival of Apia, Samoa, and Jennifer Eskioglou of Athens; and 11 grandchildren.

Private services have been held. Andover plans to hold a memorial service in the fall.