Portrait of Thomas Hart Benton Â© Michael Mardikes 2021
One night in late 2020, as Nick Vedros was leaving the house of his Aunt Myrt and Uncle Michael Mardikes, his aunt suddenly asked him, “What are we going to do with all the negatives?” The famed Kansas City photographer wasn’t sure what his 89-year-old aunt was talking about, until she handed him a notebook filled with more than 1,000 negatives chronicling Thomas Hart Benton at home and in his studio. They had been classified for almost seven decades.
This startling discovery inspired the exhibition âAn Artist at Home in America: The Michael Mardikes Photographs of Thomas Hart Bentonâ presented at the Central Library of the Kansas City Public Library. The exhibition is a must, not only for fans of Thomas Hart Benton but also for followers of exemplary photojournalism.
Of the 1,080 photographs taken by Mardikes, only four were published in an article he wrote for “This Month in Kansas City” magazine in 1966. The others were never printed and their existence was not known. known to all. Although Vedros was aware of his uncle’s mission with Benton, he was amazed to discover that so much additional material existed.
Vedros, who decided at 12 to become a photographer himself after seeing his uncle’s work, was determined to organize an exhibition, and was particularly interested in doing so as soon as possible given the advanced age and frailty growing from his uncle. Working with Dan White, photographer, master printer and friend since attending the University of Missouri School of Journalism, they selected 34 images to print and frame, researching the details with Steve Sitton, the Thomas Hart Benton House and Workshop Historic Site.
Michael Mardikes had had a brief career as a commercial photographer before working in management at Ford Motor Company and later UMKC. He became acquainted with Benton through Eugene Pyle, a former student of Benton and Mardikes’ photography professor at the Art Institute. In 1955 Benton asked Mardikes to photograph him; Mardikes visited Benton 35 to 40 times, over a period of a few months in late 1955 and early 1956. Sitton told Vedros that not only was Mardikes’ amount of access incredible, but the overall resulting work was unparalleled.
As the project progressed, Benton focused on a mural commission for the River Club in 1956. Henry Adams, prominent Benton scholar and former curator of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, provided background for this particular work: “The commission to paint ‘Traders at Westport Landing’ came to a low point in Benton’s career, in 1956, and launched the late phase of Benton’s murals. It was the first in a series of murals depicting the exploration and settlement of the west, culminating in the Truman Library Mural, which was completed in 1962. All of these murals feature trade and friendly contact with the Indians, rather than conflict, and are striking in their vivid colors and meticulous rendering of carefully researched detail. The River Club, which commissioned ‘Traders at Westport Landing’, overlooks the Missouri River and offers a scenic view very similar to that of Benton’s painting.
This group of black and white photos not only documents the artist’s working process but also reveals other aspects of his daily life: a memorable image shows Rita Benton massaging her husband’s stiff shoulders after a long day in his workshop. Other footage shows River Club board members visiting Benton’s studio to check on the progress of the mural. A charming image captures a candid moment of Rita Benton and Myrt Mardikes as they collaborated in Benton’s kitchen making kapama chicken for their husbands.
In addition to the library photography exhibit, a 10.5-minute video by Vedros is included in the exhibit. In it, we see Mardikes and his wife poignantly revisit the Benton home after 65 years. Vedros is donating all of the prints currently on display to the library while a second group may be used in future exhibitions. A limited number of certain images are available for sale through Nick Vedros.
Michael Mardikes died in December 2021 at the age of 94. After the exhibit opened a month earlier, the family celebrated at a nearby restaurant. Vedros described his uncle as a stoic guy, unwilling to show his emotions. However, that night, there was an undeniable expression of satisfaction on his face.
“An Artist at Home in America: Michael Mardikes’ Photographs of Thomas Hart Bentonâ continues at Kansas City Public Library’s Central Library, 14 W. 10and St., through May 15. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 816.701.3449 or kclibrary.org.