One glance at 55-year-old Kenneth Bennett, and it’s not hard to tell that he’s led a rough life.
He’s sitting at a table outside Ecco Espresso & Gelato, meticulously carving a wood figurine, cedar chips landing on his long, scraggly beard.
“Faces and hands are the hardest part of the anatomy to do,” he says, pulling a different tool out of a weathered knapsack to fine-tune the details.
“There are so many angles to getting the face right,” he says, never looking up from his creation. He then turns his focus to the work-in-progress’ waist area.
“That’s a rope…they didn’t have belts back then, I guess.”
The figure, a representation of St. Joseph, is a commission from a repeat client. “That’s off a guitar fret board,” he says, showing off the patron saint of workers’ miniature framing square and hammer.
As soon as he’s done with the statuette, he’s got a waiting list that includes some statues for The Monks’ Corner and a custom frame for La Cocina de Doña Clara. Not an easy feat, given that he doesn’t have a set location where potential clients can find him; he’s been homeless longer than he can remember. “On and off for a long time…long time,” he says.
“I’ll change locations and somebody will just walk by and be curious about what I’m making. For about a year and a half I sat on that stoop,” he says, pointing to the downtown public library’s delivery dock.
“I’m not doing bad this year,” Bennett says. One client, he explains, was so impressed by a sacred heart he made for her that she ordered 10 more, one for each of her sisters. “She’s marking off her Christmas list every time she gets one. It’s just luck, I think.”
The hearts retail for $75 apiece and, though there is a clear degree of artistry involved, he thinks twice about the buyer’s motivation.
“I don’t know if they’re buying because of mercy or if they really like it,” he says. “They seem to like it—you know—I hope they like it, not just [purchasing from me] because I’m homeless.”
He’ll use some of his earnings to reinvest in his craft; good tools, he says, are expensive.
“I went down to Alpine and bought these,” he says, taking out a couple out from his sack. “They were like 49 or 50 bucks; they’re not the highest quality, but they’re good enough.”
Other instruments in his collection are hand-me-downs, or have been repurposed from other tools.
“These two came out of a sheet saw, and I knocked ’em out and put in these handles so I could use a mallet on ’em,” he says of two of his upcycled implements.
“I basically just keep on carving,” Bennett says of his cyclical motivation. “I like to get three to four things going at once. [If] I get bored with doing one thing, I’ll switch to another, so that means I have like four things that I get done at once—or real close to each other—so once one sells, I’ll grab something else and start doing it.”
He’s completely self-taught, and dreams of one day being able to study under a master carver, though he recognizes chances are that’ll never happen.
“That costs $15,000 for a year of it, if not more.”
Many of his pieces carry a spiritual significance, though he’s quick to mention he’s not an overly religious man. “I do believe in Jesus—the ways—but I’ll carve anything.”
For instance, he just finished applying the eighth coat of wax to a nameplate for a musician friend’s girlfriend, and has his eyes set on carving a Roadrunner figurine.
“I went into Chuck Jones Gallery and asked them, ‘Is it against the law for me to copy this?’ They said, ‘Absolutely not, it’s free art.’ Once it’s displayed, I guess, it’s like that…I don’t know.”
Humbly, he rejects the “artist” label, though his well-developed style and technique suggest the opposite.
“People have told me, ‘You know, dude, you’re an artist,’ and I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m just a wood carver.’ I think of an artist as somebody that has the talent already…I’ll just take pictures and copy things.”
The serendipitous location where he lays his head down also suggests otherwise.
“I live in a tent off the woods,” he says. The location? “Off Artist Road.”
Pensive, he reflects, “It’s just a stroke of happening or something. I don’t know.”