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This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 16, 1999.

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May Bender’s Myriad

A visit to the artist’s studio: piece of cake. A few

minutes, a little while, even — then on to the interview. What

else? Who could have known that artist May Bender would lead a walk

through room after room of paintings in her home studio, and then

procede on to room after room of paintings in her home — more

than 300 of them altogether — and that she would talk about so

many of them individually and interestingly.

"I’ve painted forever," she summed up when we finally sat

down. By then, it seemed literally true.

Always-artist, business person, Clio-winner — not to mention gardener,

cook, and possessor of a hearty, cackling laugh, Bender is a down-to-earth,

fun interview. "Are you taping all this — all my inflections?"

she asked, once the recorder was earning its keep. Then: one of those

special laughs.

After 40 years of commuting from East Brunswick to West 30th Street,

New York, where May Bender Design Associates Inc. (MBDA), her successful

package and product-design business, was based, Bender packed it in

around 1991. Since then she has concentrated on her painting —

and she is product-oriented, not a Sunday painter, or a dilettante

about it. Besides some recent work, examples of her life-long painting

are part of the May Bender Retrospective at DeLann Gallery in the

Princeton Meadows Shopping Center through August 14. To visit her

home-studio now, though, you would never know DeLann had removed 30

pieces. Bender’s "body of work" is a very wide body.

Willing to say only that she was born in this century — "early,

but not too early," Bender has long since earned the right to

agree with Emerson that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin

of little minds." Her work is not consistent; it bears no single,

unfailing identifier as hers. And she could not care less.

"I don’t care," she says, "but the galleries do."

She mentions a gallery owner in Millburn who told her, "When you

find yourself, let me know." Bristling at the recollection, she

snaps, "She should find herself."

To describe Bender’s oeuvre requires words like "most," and

"some"; "often" is as close to absolute as it comes,

except for this: she "always" paints with oils because she

doesn’t like acrylics. (However, a few watercolors are included in

the DeLann exhibition.) Most of her paintings are large, and most

have "no stories to tell" — they’re about color and line

only. Some are figurative, based loosely on models. Typically, they’re

delightfully vivid and vibrant in color.

Many if not most of Bender’s paintings are abstract, but even there,

the variety is eye-boggling. Some are washes, and others are decidedly

painterly; some are soft-edge and amorphous, while geometric grids

and woven-color bars are there too. A few have drips, others have

fractals, a couple were done in response to Shostakovich’s symphonies,

and some suggest Matisse or Picasso. But they’re all Bender.

"Cerebrations," the name of her current series, "follow

the wanderings of the mind and its infinite combinations through color

and free form," says Judy Caracio of DeLann. She has arranged

the work in rough chronological order, and represents a variety of

sizes, mediums, and prices (from about $450 to $12,000).

Bender narrates while we walk from room to room to room. "I’m

very good at line, I use it very imaginatively. You can get such expression

with it," she announces, tongue in cheek. She mentions color combinations

she likes particularly, and speaks without false modesty of how she

"takes pleasure" in looking at her works at home. Some are

deliberately hung to be visible from the dining table, or in certain

light. "If they’re framed, that means I showed them somewhere,"

she says and laughs again.

With a sort of "kindly-chutzpah," Bender speaks

with the comfort of self-knowledge, the assurance of a woman who has

earned her successes. Her dark eyes are expressive; her eyebrows,

quite emphatic; her black slacks and top, accented with strings of

beads and bright nail polish. She is spirited and feisty today —

it’s easy to imagine her as a high-powered boss-type who didn’t suffer

fools gladly. Without announcing it, she conveys she’s been there

and done that, and yet seems proud to mention that years after she

was a trailblazer in the packaging-design field, younger women thanked

her for her leadership. One-time president of the Package Design Council

International, she received the "Packaging Person of the Year"

award in 1985.

Born in Newark, to parents who had emigrated from Russia, Bender was

one of four children. One of her brothers is also an artist, and she

remembers him giving her a box of pastels when she was around 10 years

old. She had started to draw years before that. Although neither parent

was artistic, Bender and another brother went into package-design,

and the artistic genes that seem to have been activated then turned

up in her and her husband’s twins: daughter, Leslie Bender, is an

artist who lives near Kingston, New York; and their son, Sanford B.

Ross, is an architect.

Bender attended Arts High School in Newark, and studied at New York’s

Art Students League after that, and throughout her career. "I

never learned advertising design," she says, of the first course

she elected, "but I learned all about composition and color."

Periodically, she went back for more. Accommodating her husband, Max,

now a science professor emeritus at Fairleigh Dickinson University,

Bender first commuted to New York from Metuchen, then after

the family move to East Brunswick 45 years ago, from there. Now, a

short distance from booming Route 18, she remembers when the highway

was a two-lane road and dirt roads were common.

On leaving her loft offices earlier this decade, Bender needed storage

space at home for her long-accumulated canvases and drawings, and

the ones to come. She designed what she wanted ("Who needs a garage?"),

interviewed architects, and chose Princeton’s Robert Cerutti. The

result: a house that goes on and on, with what could properly be called

a "studio wing" of many rooms, and everything pulled together

by Bender’s paintings. One part of her studio is filled with her mounted

travel photographs — still another of her artistic outlets. She

occasionally draws from these images for her paintings.

A floor-to-ceiling vertical nook holds an array of art books, and

parts of the floor are tiled, at least partly for the sake of the

tall house plants grouped together. Natural and artificial both, the

lighting throughout looks to be ample. And then there’s the rest of

the house, including a spacious, finished basement area with —

you guessed it — many more rooms that she refers to as galleries,

by number, and still more paintings. Bender says the paintings are

greatly outnumbered by works on paper. We won’t get into that.

The garden surrounding the house seems to reflect years of cultivation.

Bender exclaims about her irises that recently peaked, and, alerted

to a woodchuck wandering along the patio, shoos it, in emphatic terms

— then glances at the tape recorder and says, "Sorry."

Her years as a president and creative director made

it difficult for Bender to "putz around" now, and she doesn’t

see herself as a community activist — "I’m just not geared

that way." Although she has demonstrated her painting technique

for an area arts group, she is looking to join groups of other professional

artists. Meanwhile, she cooks as yet another creative outlet ("My

veal recipe is fabulous. You want it?"), takes walks along the

canal with her husband, and frequently goes to New York for concerts

and shows. She is especially devoted to ballet.

Like other artists who traditionally found markets for their talent

in New York, Bender is all too aware of the competition from computer-generated

art by those she calls "computer heads," who had taken over

in her field and too many others. She speaks with unveiled contempt

about those in any art-based field who digitize images, then manipulate

them, and of machine-produced type faces, all of which, she say, produce

bad results.

Coming from the woman who in 1978 won a Clio, advertising’s highest

award, for the Formula 405 shampoo tube design, this is strong stuff.

The products whose design MBDA affected include — but are not

limited to — a hanging bottle design for Gillette’s Bare Elegance;

graphics and package structures that unified Conair’s personal care

appliances; and Revlon’s Silkience. Other clients ranged from Bausch

& Lomb and Loft Candy to the United Presbyterian Church and Warner

Lambert. And let’s not forget New York Style Bagel Chips.

Her own experience required her to "know all about printing, presses,

type faces, papers," and she’s proud of that. "I retained

a couple of type books just to remind me how good type used to be.

One of the great men in design said, `If the type isn’t just right,

your best aid is a razor blade. Cut the space out between the letters.’"

She explains the lost art of "kerning," or tailoring letters

to better fit them together. It doesn’t happen anymore, she says.

The quality level is different — that is, lower.

But for now, back to the high ground: Bender’s paintings. Her artistic

scope must be seen to be believed. As she is very much the individual

with her own rules, so are her works.

— Pat Summers

May Bender Retrospective, DeLann Gallery, Princeton

Meadows Shopping Center, Plainsboro, 609-799-6706. Gallery hours are

Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.;

Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for the show that continues to August

14.


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