Day Trips

The Benini Sculpture Ranch outside of Johnson City uses the rugged Hill Country landscape as a backdrop for two-dozen designs by internationally recognized artists

One of the Beninis' many sculpture
One of the Beninis' many sculpture (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

The Benini Foundation and Sculpture Ranch outside of Johnson City uses the rugged Hill Country landscape as a backdrop for two-dozen designs by internationally recognized artists. The juxtaposition of the man-made structures with the rocky hills and expansive horizon works in a dynamic way.

"We love the environment here," says the Italian-born artist who goes only by his last name. "We want the art to complement and use the surroundings."

Benini and his wife, Lorraine, moved to the property once owned by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 2000 after falling in love with the Hill Country while on a visit to San Antonio. At first, the 140-acre ranch was a secluded place for his studio, but artist friends asked to park large pieces in the fields while they were waiting for buyers. Seven more pieces are in the planning stages, and of these, several will be made specifically for the site.

Among the mountain juniper, live oaks, and native grasses, the artwork turns the hills into a canvas. The sculptures range from large geometric designs by Rosso to smooth limestone and granite carvings by Randy Jewart.

Johann Eyfells has two installations at the ranch, including seven aluminum triangles dangling from nearly invisible wires under the branches of an oak tree. The 81-year-old Eyfells left his native Iceland to buy a ranch near Fredericksburg after visiting Benini's Texas ranch.

Besides the whimsical and magical art appearing along the dirt road into the property, the Beninis have turned a Johnson-era metal barn into offices and a gallery. The walls of the gallery showcase works of friends, and a separate room has work by emerging Italian artists that has never been shown in the U.S.

The gallery also documents the evolution of Benini as an artist. Lorraine takes visitors on a tour of the art, pointing out pieces from different periods of Benini's long career. There are antidrug posters done during the Nixon administration, giant roses done over a 20-year period, and nonlinear paintings that explore the illusion of being three dimensional. Benini's use of bright colors and light to dark shading give his paintings a look of depth and vibrance.

An artist in the kitchen as well as in the studio, Benini's one weakness (besides ice cream) seems to be for Texas barbecue that he gets almost daily at Ronnie's Barbecue in Johnson City. He doesn't smoke or drink alcohol, but he and Lorraine enjoy visiting the restaurants and movie theatres of Austin on Sundays.

"The arrogant son of the local tax man," Benini has lived in 12 countries, but likes the straightforwardness of Texans. Opinionated and often brash himself, Benini also has a warm and kind side that is accented by his gray beard and long hair. His eyes sparkle when he talks like a favorite uncle telling a juicy family secret.

The 64-year-old Benini began his artistic career soon after leaving home 50 years ago. After a short period as a busboy, he joined the street artists in the resorts around Florence, Italy. Selling a painting for $1 would allow him to eat two meals and buy more painting supplies.

He worked his way to New York on a cruise ship but ended up in the Bahamas, where he lived for 14 years as his reputation flourished. Before moving to Texas he had a studio in Hot Springs, Ark., across from the famous bathhouses.

"I can do what I do anywhere," Benini says. He chose Texas for many reasons, but the people and landscape figured prominently in his choice. Benini could easily be mistaken for a cattle rancher at the local feed store. The never-ending task of trimming the mountain junipers on the property keep him fit. He has a strict regimen of working in his studio from late evening until early morning.

This summer the Benini's will be hosting gallery talks on the last weekend of the month. For more information, call 830/868-5244 or visit www.sculptureranch.com. To get to The Benini Foundation and Sculpture Ranch, take U.S. 290 through Johnson City, turn left on County Road 204 (Flat Creek Road), and go 5.2 miles to 377 Shiloh Rd. High-clearance vehicles arent required, but the country roads can be very rough in some places. Admission to the sculpture ranch and gallery is free, and it is best to call first to be sure the Beninis are home.


711th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Johnson City, Randy Jewart, Johann Eyfells, Ronnie's Barbecue

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