Local artist reflects on Blacksburg mural creation

The art of Mexican-Brazilian graphic designer Denisse Bento sings with color and energy.

Arriving in Blacksburg from Mexico in summer 2011, a year later Bento had already made a name for her art by taking the top prize in the town’s annual Art at the Market event.

Artist Denisse “Den” Bento shows off the tools of her trade in her studio at The Artful Place on the corner of Faculty and Progress streets in Blacksburg.  Photo by Teri Hoover.
Artist Denisse “Den” Bento shows off the tools of her trade in her studio at The Artful Place on the corner of Faculty and Progress streets in Blacksburg. Photo by Teri Hoover.

The second time she attended the Blacksburg Regional Art Association’s monthly meeting after joining its ranks, she volunteered to act as the designer in a project to update the organization’s logo, brochure and website.

By December 2012, she was invited by the Town of Blacksburg to design a mural in hopes of winning the Virginia Tourism LOVEwork grant as part of the state’s social media campaign to share the message “love is at the heart of every Virginia vacation.” By April 2013, the mural was a done deed, placed high on an historic building on Draper Road.

“Since coming to Blacksburg,” said Bento, “I have met so many people and become interested in the community and its artists. It is very important to me for people to take artists seriously, especially when it comes to being professional while being creative and working as a team.”

Through the LOVEwork project and her mural, called “Loving Blacksburg,” Bento created relationships with downtown merchants to sell reproductions of her mural and, hopefully, other pieces of public art.

“To help with this process,” said Bento, “I created a local website with links to all the good things happening in our community.”

Through her 15 years of working as an artist in Mexico, Bento was recognized as one of the most innovative artists in her hometown of Mexico City, and for a couple of years was selected by international media and marketing firm Edelman as the artistic representative of children in a variety of projects.

One of those projects involved large company sponsors such as Samsung and a few top universities in Mexico City, which evolved into a traveling, interactive exhibit.

“The exhibit was a social experiment allowing parents and children to interact with the artistic displays in ways that taught them to collaborate with an emphasis on society, environment and creative lifestyle,” said Bento.

She was also the art director in several ecological and sustainable awareness projects throughout her country, opening a noprofit organization promoting the cleaning of rivers by “trading trash for food.”

“Many places in the remote areas of Mexico have no efficient way of handling trash,” Bento stated. “Because of that the people just dumped it into the rivers, creating very polluted conditions.

“In working with the children in one of my art projects, a child suggested people should be able to collect trash, turn it in at a collection point and be given food in return for their efforts, thereby giving them an incentive to handle the trash the right way.

“We pursued that idea in a small rural community and to this day in Mexico City, this project is still done with grains and vegetables being paid to the people turning in the trash. Many people have benefited from this exercise of awareness and it all started with art and children,” said Bento.

Bento holds a degree in graphic design from the University of the New World in Mexico City, and produces art using computers as well.

“My formal education taught me everything I needed to know to produce a finished product the old-fashioned way,” said Bento. “If you made a mistake then, you had to start all over. Using computers  helps me create graphic images that can be modified many times before the design is finalized.”

Much of her art, she said, is inspired by the past.

“For 10 years I dedicated much of my time researching ancient cultures in Mexico and Latin America,” commented Bento. “That led me to the sort of art I do today and helps to promote the preservation of that ancient wisdom.”

Because she still works first to create images by hand, then scans them into digital format, her concepts and graphics, she said, have been recognized as a form of art going beyond her designer profession. She still creates commissioned work from Mexico and now, in the U.S. as a freelancer, she is generally involved in children´s and community art projects through the BRAA and ARTSBURG, a collaborative effort to promote arts and cultural activities in Blacksburg — particularly those encouraging creative expression by children and youth.

Bento’s love for children led her, in the 1990s, to work in summer camps for children from all over the world through the Children´s International Summer Villages (CISV).

All of Bento’s experience working with children and art has led her to her dream of opening her  “KUBO – Art Workshop for Kids.” Cubo is the Spanish word for cube, and it represents a unique piece built by the cooperation of many sides.

“Everything you can imagine can be added as a side to build up a cube of ideas,” said Bento. “This collaboration through art is what I aim to share and teach through creativity with children.”

Bento, 36, is opening her workshop inside The Artful Place, a working studio house established by James Creekmore of the Creekmore Law Firm in Blacksburg.

“James and his marketing director Diana Francis have been hugely helpful to me since I met them,” reports Bento. “I simply would not be able to do what I am doing without them. My working studio is in their space and the KUBO Art Workshop for Kids will be there, too.”

Bento will hold her first art workshop this month with sessions for ages 6 to 18. During the summer, her workshops will be focused on mural production as a collaborative effort. Classes will be limited to between four and 10 students per session.

Helping Bento through all her projects is her husband, Herb Schneider, whom she met on an earlier visit to Blacksburg in 2001. Schneider and Bento were long-distance friends for 10 years. The pair were married in 2012 and have been happily co-creating their dreams ever since.

Inspired to try his hand at art in his wife’s studio, Schneider is every bit her partner. He helps out in whatever way necessary and often works long hours with her before going to his job. When Bento designed a mural for the children’s dental room of the Free Clinic of the New River Valley (in conjunction with the BRAA and the VT Center for the Arts), her husband wrote the music and lyrics for the jingle featured in the design.

The dental clinic mural is just one example of Bento’s public creativity. Within a few minutes of being asked to participate in the project, she had drawn on a napkin what would become the mural kids now enjoy each time they visit the clinic.

To find more about Bento’s artwork, her children’s art workshop and her other projects, go to www.denbento.com.

By Gerri Young