Benicia is a city of art and artists…
…and the most celebrated Benicia artist of all was a sculptor named Robert Arneson. Arneson, whose work is known and collected around the world, grew up in Benicia and lived and worked here until his death in 1992, at the too-young age of 62.
For residents and visitors alike, there are at least three distinctive Robert Arneson places “hidden” around Benicia which, despite its small size, abounds with tucked-away treasures worth discovering. One is the “Benicia Bench,” a whimsical self-mocking portrait of the artist created by Arneson in the year before his death. It sits in the center of a public plaza located along the waterway that boats use to stream in and out of the Marina.
While this site is not exactly hidden and certainly not unknown, it is a long, winding ramble if one were to try to walk there from First Street. Better to go by car (or even better, by boat!), following the road that takes you into the Marina all the way to the end. There you’ll see a bust of Arneson’s bearded and curly-haired head, upon which is a plank and what looks like a mallard duck sitting on top of the plank. Never afraid to poke fun at himself, the Benicia High grad’s tongue is sticking comically out the side of his mouth. On the board are scrawled the words, “Jack London Sat Here.”
Arneson Park, a tiny pocket park at the junction of West I and West 4th Streets along the Bay Trail, is a tribute to the artist. It perches on a cliff with a spectacular view of the Carquinez Strait that is a landscape painter’s dream. Small children come to play on the slides there, and there are benches and a picnic table for anyone wishing to revel in the sight of the late afternoon sun staining the surface of the water golden. It is a sure bet that most of those who enjoy this quiet little park have no idea that the man for whom it is named created one of the most talked about and controversial art works of his time, a bust of murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone.
San Francisco MOMA, the Whitney and Met in New York, the Smithsonian, LACMA in Los Angeles—these are only a few of the leading art institutions around the country whose collections include Arneson’s ceramic and bronze sculptures and drawings. His work is displayed in galleries and museums to this day. Arneson taught sculpture for many years at the University of California at Davis where one of his colleagues in the art department was another major Benicia artist, sculptor Manuel Neri.
“The Benicia Bench” and many other Arneson works sprung to life in his former home studio on 430 First Street, across from Lucca and next door to the future outpost of Mare Island Brewing. Now the home of his wife, Sandra Shannonhouse, an accomplished artist in her own right, the building is a large, lovely two-story dark brown structure with a peaked roof and an upstairs balcony framed by charming red double doors and windows. Bricks with Arneson’s name are inlaid into the sidewalk out front, right where people walk.
The fact that every day the feet of strangers passing up and down First tromp unknowingly across his name surely struck Arneson, a man with a highly developed sense of humor, with absurdist delight. One can even imagine the great artist himself stepping on the bricks, himself, as he left his studio after a morning of hard work to go up the street to have lunch at Mabel’s. Mabel’s was a convivial little diner where Arneson and other artists and townspeople loved to hang, sort of Benicia’s version of the Algonquin Round Table. It is long gone now but the town’s Bohemian spirit lives on in its public art, parks and even under foot.