When walking into Fire Works Foundry in Penn Yan, visitors see a brightly lit studio space, its white walls lined with photos of owner and sculptor Dexter Benedict’s subjects and past work. In his wife, Faith’s studio are handmade ceramic bowls and vases, plants hanging in the windows, and a shiny kiln just waiting to be fired up.
Both studios have tools of their respective trades—everything from screwdrivers to toothbrushes—lined up and ready to be used at a moment’s notice.
A lot has changed for the Benedicts since the morning of Nov. 1, 2017.
“We were woken up around 5 a.m. by our dog, Leo, barking,” recalls Dexter, professor emeritus of art at Keuka College. “Out of the bedroom window, I saw flashing lights in the driveway, and my first thought was it was a patrol car. And then I realized what was happening—our studio and foundry were on fire! We were in absolute shock.”
The fire is believed to have been sparked by a propane gas leak in Faith’s studio. The losses included not only the building but many tangible pieces of both Dexter and Faith’s life’s work.
“It was a hot fire, and an equal opportunity destroyer,” says Dexter, who received a Doctor of Humane Letters from the College in 2014. “I lost about 43 years of works and pieces of interest—it all burned up. But while the pieces and prototypes were lost, the ideas are not lost in my head.”
Faith, a member of the Keuka College Class of 1981 and former instructor at the College, lost nearly everything as well. Ironically, she had fired the kiln the night before, and while the kiln was destroyed, everything inside survived intact.
After the fire
“That day, and the days after, were devastating,” says Dexter. “Right away, we decided to rebuild. With the help of our Mennonite neighbors, the Keuka College community, and the Yates County Arts Center, we rebuilt our studio better than ever.”
Leroy Hoover and his construction company—Cedar Lane Construction—led the rebuilding efforts. Construction was completed by the end of April 2018. From there, new equipment began to arrive.
“In terms of creativity, my new studio makes it easier to work,” says Dexter. “I now have a floor that’s all level so I can move things easier, faster, and have more accessible space. My ideas have not changed, and I have been positively influenced by the new space.”
Dexter also credits Don Wertman, a member of the College’s Board of Trustees, with coming to the couple’s aid.
“Don is a good friend, and he volunteered to help with the cleanup and rebuilding of the studio in many ways,” says Dexter. “He’s also helped us over this past year, and it’s very much appreciated.”
Don says helping the Benedicts, who he calls two of the most giving and thoughtful people imaginable, was simply a matter of giving back.
“They are always among the first to volunteer their time and talent to Keuka College, the Presbyterian Church in Geneva, numerous arts and civic organizations in the region, and to their family and friends,” says Don. “Knowing their talent and generosity, it became a foregone conclusion that the structures would be rebuilt and outfitted so the Benedicts could continue their creative endeavors.”
That’s just one strand of a relationship with the College that has been strong and enduring.
“Like many people, I have an ongoing fondness for Keuka College, and all that makes it what it is," says Dexter. “I would have shown up to teach classes even if they hadn’t paid me. I want to be as helpful to Keuka College in any way I can. The studio is always open to the College community, like an outpost of Keuka College.”
A renowned artist, Dexter creates cast bronze statues of historical figures, both in local communities and those with national notoriety. These include Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—whose busts grace Lightner Library—Canandaigua’s Mary Thompson, and John Lincklaen, founder of the city of Cazenovia.
“[At the time of the fire] I still had several commissions that I was working on, and had to call those clients and ask to deliver the commissions a year after the initial deadline,” says Dexter. “The first commission I completed after the fire was of Lincklaen.”
The statue, “Lincklaen’s Vision,” was dedicated on Oct. 20, Cazenovia Founder’s Day. Lincklaen, an 18th-century land agent, left a career in the Dutch Navy to explore the vast New York wilderness. The statue is a 500-pound bronze sculpture of Lincklaen, sitting on a rock looking east and drawing out plans for the future village of Cazenovia.
What turns into a 500-pound sculpture begins with a little model made of wax, with most projects taking between 4-6 months to complete.
“While the wax is still warm, I can manipulate the arms, legs, or head to evoke a mood, sense of direction, or movement,” says Dexter. “This 3D model allows me to see the space around the model and gives me a better idea of how the full-sized figure will turn out. This is also something I can show the clients, which is a bit more tangible than a flat, two-dimensional drawing.”
Dexter is currently working on commissions of Harriet Tubman and William Seward, both for the Schenectady County Public Library in Schenectady, N.Y.
“With one major bronze sculpture already finished and installed in Cazenovia, Dexter has numerous commissions on his trestle board to occupy his time and engage his creativity for several years to come,” says Don.
“A good thing about the fire has been the contributions of other people, who held us up in spirits,” says Dexter. “It’s worked out very well, and I’m grateful. The evolution of the process from the loss of everything burning down and being completely gone, left with nothing but rubble…And then building it back up with the support of the greater community who believed in us, and wanted to see us back, cause us to want to reach out and help others more.”
Dexter adds that in response to his Mennonite neighbors’ help, Faith now works with their schools providing ceramics classes.
“We want to give back to the community that gave us so much,” says Dexter. “The Mennonites knew we needed help and they showed up to help. I think this is a worthy way to think and conduct ourselves as human beings."