Author celebrates artist’s views of ordinary people

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Fans of the painter Thomas Hart Benton honored the artist’s 130th birthday last month, and for local author Donna Baier Stein, the celebration is ongoing. Stein’s short story collection, “Scenes from the Heartland,” is inspired by Benton’s paintings. She’ll discuss the art that led her to write the stories and sign copies of her book at the West Orange Public Library on Sunday, May 19.

“I have an early edition lithograph of Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings,” Stein said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on May 10. “I wanted to do something a little bit different, so I started writing a description of what I saw. I made up characters and wrote a story and I had so much fun writing that, that I did more.”

Benton’s paintings largely depict everyday people in scenes of life in the United States, particularly small Midwestern towns. Stein, like Benton, hails from Kansas City, Mo., and did a lot of research about the Great Depression in that area while writing the book.

“It led me to some fascinating discoveries,” Stein, who now lives in Bernardsville, said. “I read diaries and reports about people who had lived in that time.”

Benton’s paintings are not always set in a specific place, so Stein used her research and imagination to choose a setting for each story. One takes place in Hot Springs, Ark., a place she discovered was a popular summer destination for gangsters and their families.

Looking at an image and creating a story around it is something Stein often does herself and with the students she teaches in writing workshops. She hands out postcards with images on them to spur students to begin a story, and she will build a story from there, supporting it with research to flesh out characters and settings.

Stein wasn’t always a fiction writer, though; she was a freelance mail copywriter for years, working for environmental groups and organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the Smithsonian. She published two nonfiction books on copywriting before going back to school to get her MFA in fiction writing, and her first novel was published in 2013, when she was 60 years old.

Benton’s artwork can be seen all over the world, with a permanent exhibit found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and Stein believes that seeing ordinary people in an ordinary place, regardless of the time period, is important.

“I wanted them to be accurate, but they can be told from a modern setting as well,” she said about her stories set in the 1930s. “Traditions from back then bring people together and can be transposed to another time.”

After reading, thinking and writing about Benton’s art so much while working on her book, Stein said she has an affinity for the painter’s work.

“I always liked it, but I definitely have a new appreciation for his work,” she said. “He was one of the first to paint ordinary people. What’s special is this vibrancy and this smorgasbord of people he featured. I think that’s important to remember.”

Photos Courtesy of Donna Baier Stein