Artists Moishe Smith and Lee Bennion, unfamiliar to most of the 200 guests present, remained in the shadows last Monday night at the Salt Lake Art Center. That is, until they were announced as the winners of 1988 Utah Arts Council's Visual Artists Fellowships.

Then, suddenly, the two artists - a short, bewhiskered printmaker from Logan and a tall, blond painter from Spring City - were in the spotlight.Fifty-three Utah artists had applied for the fellowships, hoping to win. But out-of-state jurors Harold Tovish (a professor of art at Boston University) and Theodore Waddell (a sculptor from Ryegate, Mont.) whittled the number to five finalists. And after another careful look, they decided that the two fellowship recipients should be Smith and Bennion.

This came as quite a surprise to some. Ever since this fellowship competition began in 1986, winners had been selected from the Wasatch Front. In 1986 the winners were Paul Davis and Bonnie Sucec. And last year, David Dornan and Allen Bishop won.

The 1988 selections reaffirm the belief that there are some very vibrant art communities in Utah's smaller towns.

Most who attended Monday's reception were familiar with Smith's and Bennion's works, but few had met them. When Smith's one-man show opened in the Main Gallery at the Salt Lake Art Center in 1983, he was in Europe. And Bennion seldom attends openings, because she lives in the small town of Spring City, Sanpete County.

Smith was surprised at his award: "I didn't think a printmaker would have much of a chance."

Bennion was thrilled. She confessed that she didn't apply for the fellowship until a day before the deadline. She waited until then because in January she had given birth to her third child and wasn't sure she wanted to be tied down to another project so soon.

"Fortunately, I already had slides of my work. And my statement was part of the justification I used for my BFA project several years ago at BYU," she said.

Incidentally, Bennion's husband, ceramist Joseph Bennion, also applied for a UAC fellowship and was one of the five finalists considered for this year's awards.

Smith is no newcomer to the winner's circle. A look at his resume reveals that, over the years, he has won a John S. Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship in addition to five research grants - two from Utah State University, two from the University of Wisconsin, and one from Southern Illinois University.

And he has won many awards - so many that they fill 11/2 pages in his resume. One of the most important was a 1986 prize for his etching "Three Men in an Olive Tree" in the 11th International Biennale of Graphic Art in Kracow, Poland.

Asked how we was going to spend the $5,000 UAC fellowship, Smith said that he plans to visit Israel for a month this summer and make preliminary drawings and photograph landscapes. On his return, he will complete a series of four or five 18-inch by 24-inch etchings. However, this time he would like to include figures.

Moishe Smith's style hasn't changed much over the years. "I've always been a realist," he admits.

But his realistic style is far from photographic representation. Smith fills his etchings with an individualistic style that sets them apart from other artists' works.

A master of intaglio, Smith combines etching, softground etching and aquatint techniques to come up with his creations. He also enjoys monotype printing.

During the school year, Smith teaches printmaking and visual design at Utah State University. He has been there for 11 years. Before arriving at USU, he was an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside for six years. He also has taught at Southern Illinois University, Ohio State University and others.

His prints are carried locally by Gayle Weyher Gallery and Park City's Old Town Gallery. Galleries in Denver, Chicago, Louisville, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., also handle his works.

Lee Bennion is a young painter who has surprised many with her unique, mature style. And she's only two years out of her undergraduate program.

1987 was a banner year for her. She won a purchase award in the Museum of Church History and Art Fine Arts competition, a merit award in the Deseret News Art Show, best of show in the AAUW exhibit in Springville, jurors' choice award in the National April Salon at the Springville Museum of Art, and second place in the statewide competition at Community Art Center.

A wife and mother of three daughters, Bennion has had to divide her time between homemaking and painting. After two years of classes at Brigham Young University, she stopped painting for five years to have two children (Louisa, now 10, and Zina, now 8).

"However, I don't feel I wasted time. When I came back to painting, I found it came easy. Besides, I had matured a lot as a person, and I had something to say."

And she kept painting, up until 12 hours before her last child (Adah Lee) was born on Jan. 23 - two weeks late. That delay helped Bennion complete a very pregnant self-portrait.

"The day I finished the painting, I went into labor," she said.

Bennion and her husband love the rural life: "I'm really happy where I am. This is the very place and lifestyle I have always dreamed about since I was a kid."

And her lifestyle is reflected in her work. The backgrounds in Bennion's paintings are pretty much the scenes inside the Bennion home. Her portraits are those of family members and close friends. "I paint the things I know and like. A painter should be able to paint from his own doorstep," she said.

In describing her work, Bennion writes, "Although I primarily paint for figure, portraiture is not my main concern. My paintings deal with form, color, and feelings foremost. . . My figures are often slightly distorted, never quite perfect, but hopefully reflect the warmth and goodness that I feel exist with them. I am most pleased when these feelings reach the viewer and some kind of dialogue occurs that goes beyond recognition of the subject."

Bennion said that she will wait a month or so before resuming her painting. "Occasionally I need two or three months rest. It's good for me. A break is necessary for me to regroup."

Two galleries carry Bennion's work - Gallery 56 in Salt Lake and the Meyer Gallery in Park City.

She admits that she doesn't especially like her paintings going to galleries. She grows so attached to them that she hates to part with them immediately. She says it's like giving away a baby.

But painting for an exhibit is more stimulating, because works can be held on to longer and displayed as a group.

The next year will be filled with concentrated effort as Bennion begins to produce paintings for a joint show with Smith tentatively set for the Salt Lake Art Center in 1990.

She's excited about this show. So is Smith. And so are many of their fans who, over a relatively short period of time, have fallen in love with these two artists' works.

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