A block away from Bob Benson’s Glen Burnie home, you notice a few random sparks and flashes. As you move closer, the flashes become bolder, more kinetic. Then, suddenly, you see them, dangling from the branches of trees in Benson’s front yard: hundreds of twirling, twinkling mirrors. Rectangles, triangles, discs, ovals, squares, stars— a geometer’s grab bag.
Even without the mirrors— or “flashies,” as Benson calls them— the house would stand out. It’s a wooden A-frame chalet plunked down in a neighborhood of modest saltbox and aluminum siding structures. On the home’s second floor is a loft with a soaring 27-foot ceiling that houses the thousands of classical recordings Benson collected in his 40-year career presenting classical music on Baltimore’s commercial and public radio stations— WFDS, WBAL, WBJC and WJHU. But if classical music is Benson’s first love, it now has competition.
“I was visiting a friend on the Eastern Shore, and he had one of these mirror things hanging in the yard,” says Benson, who is 76-going-on-60. “His sister had bought it at some store. And I looked at it and said, ‘I can make that.’”
That was two years ago. With some sheets of mirror and cutting tools from Home Depot, Benson began to make simple little shapes that he attached to fishing line and hung as mobiles. Those squares and triangles soon gave way to more complicated shapes, bigger sizes, different colors, mirror-on-mirror. Before long, he was making elaborate structures such as a simulated fountain, his “MMM tree” (metal, mirrors and marble) and the bright round discs called oscilla, a Latin term describing the masks or faces that ancient Romans hung in their gardens as votive offerings. Benson’s oscilla are made of colored mirrors cut as rings in graduated sizes, each of which can rotate— oscillate— in a different direction.
Sitting at a large wooden table, Benson places a sheet of mirror against a ruler on a cutting board and scores it. “Glass wants to break along a straight line,” he explains. Sure enough, he puts a pair of convex pliers on the line, presses and the sheet breaks along a smooth, clean line, perfectly straight, with no jagged edges. To make round shapes, he uses another gadget. Benson arrived at this process through trial and error. How many pieces of glass did he break along the way? “Oh, thousands,” he says. “Thousands.”
While working in radio, Benson also served as director of community development at the Maryland State Arts Council before retiring in 1996. Never one to sit around, the Chicago native still rises at 5:30 and hits the gym. Then he comes home, cranks up the classical music and sets to work on his flashies. “It takes patience and the ability to cut and deal with thousands of pieces,” he says. “There’s really no great artistry here.”
Rebecca Hoffberger begs to differ. After Benson’s flashies caught the eye of the director of the American Visionary Art Museum, she commissioned him to decorate an oak tree in front of the museum. He hung it with flashies and even covered the trunk with mirrors. The commission expanded: two trees. And expanded again: a giant “pond” inside the museum, made up of swirling, whirling, swooping arcs and arabesques of colors— turquoise, silver, amber, green— more than 6,000 pieces in the vertical side of the pond alone. Benson created it with the help of his neighbor, sculptor Richard Ames. A plaque in front of the display bears both men’s names and the title, “Oceanus.”
“It’s amazing,” says Hoffberger. “I’m really hoping Bob Benson will carry the torch as our leader into Baltimore bling-bling. I think we could be kind of America’s grass-roots Barcelona, but in our own vocabulary.”
Back in Glen Burnie, Benson has gotten used to the occasional knock on the door. People passing by are entranced by the shiny creations in his yard. They want to know what they are, how they got there, if they can buy them. Benson doesn’t sell his flashies, but fans can learn about them at his Web site, http://www.shinyhappythings .com. He’s also offering classes in flashie-making at AVAM this year.
“I’m just having a ball doing all this,” he says. “I’m just glad people like it.”
Bob Benson will teach a flashie-making class called “Shiny Happy Things” at the American Visionary Art Museum on Aug. 11 and 18, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 410-244-1900, http://www.avam.org.
Lisa Simeone is host of “NPR World of Opera.”