Benson, AZ - A whistle blasted behind me. I jumped and instinctively tightened my grip on the steering wheel. Not a hundred yards outside my window, a Southern Pacific Railroad engine streamed past click-clacking along its perfectly parallel iron rails.
Mighty rivers and ‘iron horse’ lines were once the primary means of travel in the US. Now, rivers of concrete crisscross the landscape and Southern Arizona’s panoramic vistas tease and beckon me until I take that road just to see where it leads.
Its horn blaring, I watched the train glide past the historic train station alongside the two-lane 4th Street, a main thoroughfare through town. Located about 45 miles southeast of Tucson, Benson is one of those town’s that it’s easy to spend more time passing through than to spend time in. Known as the gateway to places like Kartchner Caverns State Park, Tombstone, and Bisbee, it’s also the jumping off point for many of the area’s ghost towns and other hidden gems, like Gammon’s Gulch, the Forever Home Donkey Rescue, and the Oasis Sanctuary for exotic birds … but that’s another story.
Up ahead, at the corner of 4th and San Pedro Streets, a mural of an old-fashioned stagecoach gracing the side of a building caught my attention. But nearer to me, at ground level, I spied a small, rectangular sign with a directional arrow promoting an art gallery just down the block. I decided to take a chance and investigate. Finding a parking spot was not an issue.
I turned the corner to discover that another old-west mural ranged the length of the block, its colors a brilliant backdrop to its dusty and sun-bleached surroundings. I meandered along the sidewalk and marveled at the artistry of the mural. Both sides of the Endeavor Gallery entrance were framed by murals and I soon learned that a Guidebook to Benson’s Murals can be found at the Benson Visitor Center located in the train station.
I pulled on the gallery door, quite a hefty heave at that, and entered the gallery, a showroom for the many local artists, members of the San Pedro River Arts Council. Two gallery volunteers, artists themselves, greeted me warmly. I wandered through the two-room exhibition, surprised and delighted by what I discovered.
Internationally-famed impressionist Claude Monet was inspired by the natural beauty of Giverny. He painted the lush gardens and ponds of its French countryside repeatedly to capture the changing of light and the passing of the seasons.
The artists featured at the Endeavor Gallery are inspired by a similar bounty -- that of the San Pedro River Valley.
Rivers and riparian corridors are the lifeblood of the desert. The San Pedro River is no exception. It is the last major, free-flowing — undammed river — in the American southwest. Regional artists can’t help but be inspired by it.
The San Pedro river originates about ten miles south of Sierra Vista, AZ in Sonora, Mexico and flows north 140 miles to meet the Gila River near Winkelman, AZ. I was amazed to learn that the San Pedro river valley hosts two-thirds of the bird species found in the US, over 100 breeding, and 300 migrating species.
But my surprise turned to awe when I learned that the valley has the highest concentration of Clovis sites in North America. The Clovis hunted mammoth in the region some 10,000 years ago and a mammoth site is nearby.
But I digress. The Endeavor Gallery is sponsored by the San Pedro River Arts Council which originated in 2007 as the Benson Arts Commission. As membership grew and expanded beyond the city’s limits, the commission changed its name and broadened its mission.
The gallery’s current exhibition features 43 artists with 117 pieces representing a wide range of subject matter and media including oil and acrylic painting, color pencil, watercolor, sculpture, ceramics, scratchboard, mixed media and photography.
No matter the time of year, I’m always on the lookout for gifts for friends and family. The gallery offered a unique selection: ceramics, note cards, tote bags, framed art and more. The Endeavor Gallery is open Monday through Friday from 10 am to 4 pm and Saturdays from 10 am to 2 pm. It’s well worth a visit when traveling through Benson.
And if you have the time, the Benson Museum is nearby at 180 S. San Pedro Street. The current exhibition (Fall 2018) features the Brown Mastodon Story which resulted in three Mastodons exhibited for over half a century at the Smithsonian and the New York Natural History Museum. Check out the extinct glyptodont - an armadillo-like creature, the largest of which weighed over 4,000 pounds! These unusual creatures will be featured in a new Smithsonian exhibit in 2019. The Benson Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 2 pm.
RJ Brenner is a published freelance writer specializing in travel, natural and medieval history. Her articles have been featured in several Arizona regional and state magazines. She is currently researching and writing a historical fiction novel about the life of the Black Prince and her article about the first Princess of Wales, Joan of Kent, will appear in an upcoming issue of the Ricardian Bulletin, a quarterly magazine produced by the Richard III Society, UK, distributed internationally.
198 E 4th St, Benson, AZ 85602
Hours: M - F 10am - 4pm; Sat 10am - 2pm
Phone: (520) 586-4630
180 S. San Pedro St., Benson AZ 85602
Hours: Tues. - Sat. 10am - 2pm