Don Benjamin: Author, cartoonist, teacher
By Pat Sunderland
Published Wednesday, April 20, 2016 10:47 am
Photo by Pat Sunderland Don Benjamin's work is displayed at Grand Mesa ImpressionZ, a co-op artists' gallery in downtown Cedaredge.
Cartooning may not be a good way to make a living, but it can certainly keep you entertained. Pencil in hand, you surround yourself with superheroes, whimsical animals and humorous characters who pepper your drawings with witty comments.
Don Benjamin has kept himself entertained in that manner since he was in first grade. Through high school, college, military service and his professional career (not in cartooning), he's found opportunities to keep his creative juices flowing. Although he's officially retired, the ideas just keep coming.
His first drawings were illustrations for stories he heard his dad swap with other farmers in the Greeley area. Don recalls, "Some guy would say, 'Did you hear the one about the pig with the wooden leg?' and even though Dad had heard the story a hundred times, he'd say no, just so he could listen if they told it a little better, so he could get ideas for his own storytelling."
That pig with the wooden leg came to life under Don's hand.
"My dad was a mechanical illustrator, so I probably picked up drawing from him in pencil first, then in ink."
His first cartoon book was the result of a first or second grade assignment to find birds in the neighborhood, then take photos or make drawings of them. Rather than produce a simple sketch, Don added details that must have made his teachers chuckle -- like a suitcase in the hand of a bird preparing to fly south for the winter.
"My teachers really encouraged me a lot, with both my writing and my illustrations," he said. Once they discovered his talent, he was asked to work on bulletin boards and do illustrations for his school newspaper.
Although he demonstrated a great deal of artistic ability, an uncle who worked professionally as a commercial artist advised Don that his writing was stronger than his drawing. When Don enlisted in the U.S. Army, he did so as a journalist. "Once I got on the post newspaper and started writing, I figured I could talk somebody into running a cartoon strip and that turned out to be the case."
A general in Korea put Don to work drawing cartoons designed to help improve discipline on the post, featuring a devil to illustrate how not to do things.
After military service and obtaining an undergraduate degree in elementary education, Don taught for several years. He continued his education with a degree in college administration. He retired in 2013 and in October 2014 moved to Cedaredge. For the previous 10 years, he'd been coming to the area to fish and cabin sit for friends. His position as an academic adviser for Phoenix College students, many of whom were online, allowed him to also work online so he could escape to Grand Mesa for the summer.
While in Arizona, he began teaching the art of cartooning in schools. That venture was so much fun, he has continued to teach. Last summer, he offered his superhero curriculum in conjunction with the summer reading programs at libraries in Delta County, Grand Junction, Montrose and Gunnison. This year, he's teaching a class for the gifted and talented students at Cedaredge Middle and Cedaredge High schools. The students are provided with the beginning of a story, then asked to write the ending and do the illustrations.
"They all say they have no artistic ability," Don says of his students, "but when I ask them to show me what they can do, it turns out they usually have a pretty good idea. They just need some suggestions.
"I always tell them the story is the most important thing. A good story can carry a mediocre drawing, but the best drawing in the world isn't going to make a bad story work. I encourage them to work on their English skills; drawing will come over time."
In addition to drawing and writing, Don advises aspiring cartoonists to pursue whatever other interests they have. "The more they know, the more insight they have and the more they can make up jokes about it," Don says. He points to Gary Larson, creator of the Far Side, who incorporated science into his work.
Don's own foray into the world of downhill skiing inspired a series of cartoons that wound up in a self-published book aptly titled "Downhill."
Don thumbs through the book, pointing to the cartoon of himself that served as inspiration for the series of cartoons. "I fell down so many times that day, I wondered about the Guinness record for falls, and the shortest distance between falls."
The other book he self-published also reflects personal experiences. "When You Live Alone: Things Dedicated Singles Do" ultimately became a series of three books.
Don says cartoonists have to be thick-skinned. He tells his students, "If people don't get your jokes, try to find out why and how they can be improved. It never hurts to get more input. I got that from my dad, a great storyteller."
Though cartooning has been mostly a hobby, Don says he has always found ways to incorporate cartooning into his professional life. He's illustrated publications and posters, and created caricatures of co-workers as retirement gifts. It's a great way to impress your boss, he says.
Don has submitted cartoons to virtually every magazine in the U.S. and Canada, and ultimately had one published in Better Homes & Gardens.
These days, he's sticking closer to home, with a series of cartoons called "Remember When ..." in the Beacon senior newspaper.
Mostly, though, he's focusing on a novel that he started in high school. The story is based on his mother's letters and journals, in which she described how she and her family made do during the Depression and the effect World War II had on her family. He values the feedback he's received from writing groups in Cedaredge, Delta and Montrose.
"Just like drawing, you've got to be able to take feedback and criticism if you're going to improve," he says.
"That's another thing I tell my classes: don't get too enamored with your drawings; don't keep doing the same thing over and over again. Every time I redo something I try to make it a little better."
Before winter, he plans to recreate his "Downhill" series using animals in place of the characters, "just to make it a little different."
Meanwhile, Don is exhibiting his work at the ImpressionZ gallery in downtown Cedaredge and this summer will be the lead administrator for the visitor center on Grand Mesa. That position will put him closer to the lakes of Grand Mesa and another of his passions -- fishing.
There are just a handful of cartoonists who make a living at it, so Don encourages aspiring cartoonists to pursue whatever interests they have, make sure their writing is strong -- because they can use that skill in any endeavor -- and keep cartooning as a hobby.
"It is possible to make money as a cartoonist, but maybe not full time," Don says. "You need to have a fallback plan."
Or in his case, several -- author, cartoonist and teaching artist.