If you have ever ventured to Kinston to dine at Chef & the Farmer, you may have been too busy enjoying your meal or trying to see if chef Vivian Howard was in the kitchen to notice the artwork.
But the energetic paintings that dot the restaurant’s walls are the work of Howard’s husband, Ben Knight. His first art show in a decade is Thursday at the Alizarin Gallery in Durham.
Knight, 38, may be better known as the grumpy husband on “A Chef’s Life,” the PBS show starring Howard that it is now in its second season. (His nickname is “Benny Bummer.”) The show delves into eastern North Carolina food traditions while chronicling the couple’s efforts to raise twins and run two restaurants.
What pays the bills
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Knight and Howard moved to Kinston from New York City in 2006, they planned to open a casual lunch restaurant.
Knight thought the move would give him more time and space to work on his art. He figured he would help get the restaurant open and then be free to paint. But that all changed when they scrapped plans to open a casual eatery and decided to go with a fine dining restaurant instead.
Knight acknowledges that his workload stands in the way of his art. But that’s not the only obstacle: By his own admission, he’s not very disciplined but needs structure to paint. His artistic growth has not advanced as he would like.
“Unfortunately, because I work 80 hours a week at a restaurant, that development has been slower,” he explained.
During the summer, the couple built a painting studio for Knight, which has helped provide the space and structure for him to pursue his art.
What feeds the soul
Knight’s path toward becoming an artist started with his grandmother, Florence, a longtime art instructor and art therapist. He attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., because of the close relationship he had with his grandparents, who lived nearby. During college, Knight had lunch with his grandmother every Tuesday after she taught classes at the Evanston Arts Center. (Throughout his childhood, Knight had attended her classes twice a week.)
He didn’t consider art as a career until he was 21. Gazing at a Max Ernst print, he told his girlfriend at the time: “I think I want to be a painter.”
After graduation from Northwestern with an English degree, he enrolled in continuing education classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. At 25, he moved to New York City and studied at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and The Art Students League of New York.
At the latter, he took a class taught by Larry Poons, a well-regarded painter known for “op-art,” or paintings that conveyed movement. Knight remembers his first class. He was meticulously setting up his station to start painting when Poons bellowed in more colorful language than can be shared here: “What in the (heck) are you waiting for? Paint, (gosh-darn it)!”
Knight took Poons’ advice and learned how to jump into painting. He describes his acrylic paintings as “an exercise in observation. It’s observation of light, color and speed.” Even though he admires abstract expressionists, Knight doesn’t use that terminology to describe his work. An abstraction is based on something concrete, he points out. He considers his pieces to be realistic impressions of emotions, a description coined by British artist Howard Hodgkin.
Alizarin Gallery’s owner Cathy Crumpton said Knight’s vibrant paintings were a good fit for the gallery and unlike anything else displayed on its walls, which feature mostly North Carolina artists.
“They are big, bold and the texture would be very cool,” Crumpton said.
Besides being influenced by Poons’ art itself, Knight also found him a font of career advice. Once, Poons asked if Knight wanted to be painting in 40 years.
“I didn’t think about it then,” Knight said. “But I’ve thought about it every day since.”
One thing is clear: He has to eventually ditch the restaurant job.
“If I can make enough money doing this,” Knight said, “I can pay somebody to do my job.”