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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The air between: Influential artist and teacher Ben Frank Moss dies at 83

Ben Frank Moss visits Whitworth University in 2009. (Tad Wisenor / COURTESY)

Be interested. Be interesting.

These were common directives Ben Frank Moss had for his students, and when Christine Lynch Druffel reaches day’s end, she asks herself: Was I interested? Was I interesting?

Lynch Druffel was Moss’ student at Fort Wright College in 1967 and, like many others, became a lifelong friend. Moss’ teachings became an inner voice, providing further instruction in art as well as life, the lessons all the more indellible because Moss led by example. A prolific and prominent artist as well as a longtime university professor, Moss died Aug. 9 at 83 from complications from cancer and stroke.

“He just opened up this whole new world for me and so many others,” Lynch Druffel said. “He would be able to feed your curiosity and say, ‘How am I going to challenge this student?’ ”

Moss, whose work was the subject of more than 50 solo shows during his lifetime, grew up on the East Coast and graduated from Whitworth University in 1959 Though he left Spokane to earn his Masters in Fine Arts degree from Boston University, he and his wife, Jean Moss, returned temporarily in 1962.

Moss served as an adjunct instructor at Gonzaga University before becoming the director of the MFA and Visiting Critics program at Fort Wright College and a founding member and acting dean of the Spokane Studio School. Moss went on to teach at the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, where he became the art department chair, but returned to Eastern Washington throughout the rest of his life and never forgot his alma mater.

Moss gifted Whitworth more than 200 pieces spanning 40 years and valued at over $1 million. Late last year, Whitworth hosted a showing at the Bryan Oliver Gallery. And now his work is peppered throughout the university’s campus, including in the chapel and student union building.

During a recent campus tour, Tad Wisenor, Whitworth’s associate vice president of Institutional Advancement, pointed out postcard-sized, pen-and-ink drawings Moss created by cutting the end off a match stick.

“He liked the way (the match stick) soaked up the ink,” Wisenor said. “I love this set, and he was so specific, so precise. He gave us the details: Here are the numbers and here is how I want you to hang them.”

Moss’ health prevented him from attending the show, but his children Ben “Benty” Moss and Jennifer Moss attended in his stead. The event turned into a mini-reunion of students, who took a group photo in front of a rectangular display of 16 of Moss’ smaller paintings.

“We could call this one painting,” colleague and friend Gordon Wilson, a Whitworth University art professor, said at the showing. “I really like this group, but I also find that I need to go up really close and look at them individually.”

Much of his work – paintings, drawings and mixed media – centers around abstractions of Pacific Northwest landscapes, but Moss didn’t work en plein air, instead rendering a composite of dreamlike memories. Wilson, also a Fort Wright student, said Moss wasn’t trying to paint landscapes, but the air between himself and the landscape.

In the introduction to a catalog of his work published by the Francine Seders Gallery, Moss told the story of digging for days after his grandfather told him that with enough effort, he could make it to China.

“My studio today has been a place for launching a painting, drawing or print, not unlike digging a hole working towards a mysterious reward,” Moss wrote. “In my persistent digging I have seen bits of China. For the presence of that defining shadow of life partnered with a shadow of darkness, I am deeply grateful. I know that I have been embraced by a gift.”

Moss often recounted formative moments in his storytelling. Wilson remembers Moss speaking of one of his first art classes. Moss arrived late, and the students were drawing objects. Pickings were slim, and the teacher told Moss he could go to her husband’s studio – elsewhere on campus – to fish around for something. When Moss arrived at the studio, he knocked on the door to no answer. He entered, and encountered a large man painting with intensity. The man’s complete concentration made a lasting impression on Moss.

Though meticulous, Moss rarely threw anything away. The undertaking of sorting through his artwork and years of correspondence has been an undertaking for his wife and their children. Moss frequently corresponded with others, including countless thoughtful letters of recommendation for his students. Jean R. Moss, his wife, said he wrote on carbon paper so he could keep a copy for his records.

“I still have every letter that he ever wrote and ever received,” Jean said. “Boxes and boxes, but they were all very neat and very organized.”

When Moss sent his work to Whitworth, he sent Wilson old canvases with underpaintings. Among the myriad canvases leaning in his office, Wilson flipped to one of Moss’ with “1980” penciled on the back.

“I’ve been painting on them, and these are two of my paintings on his canvases,” Wilson said. “I’d call these a collaboration, because in some cases, like he had blue here, but I never would put blue there. For me, that’s been a really interesting thing, and they are even more precious now that he passed away.”

Moss had a holistic approach to teaching. Simply instructing and providing students with critiques fell short of his vision for them. He often suggested books, poetry, gallery showings and more.

Christine Kimball, who was Moss’ student in 1964, said he was the person she would go to with any question about her work, leading up to his death.

“He would always talk to you about what you were doing, and he never pushed anything, but he would bring up ideas that you might not have had,” Kimball said.

“You would understand later, ‘Oh, that was what the painting needed.’ ”

Shani Marchant, who started at Fort Wright in 1966, said Moss’ belief in her helped her believe in herself.

“It was a difficult education for me because I was deaf,” Marchant said. “I read lips and I was with nuns who had habits that prevented me from seeing their lips, and so my grades were really low, but it didn’t matter to Ben Moss. He saw something in me.”

Marchant said the way Moss treated others – especially the underdogs – was one of the wonderful exceptions.

“I think he prepared me for my life,” she said.

Cathy Schoenberg said Moss always treated women with equal respect.

“I just really took to his way of teaching, and I loved the challenge,” Schoenberg said. “He treated everyone with respect, he appreciated hard work, and he let you know.”

Karen Kaiser, Gonzaga University curator of education, remembers Moss reading to the class as they were painting, a practice still vital in her work.

“I remember Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins, and those were a really important part of my experience,” Kaiser said. “That language was integrated into the drawing process.”

Moss’ family was an integral part of his life. Jean and Ben were a package deal. His students – many of whom had babysat their children, Benty and Jennifer – expressed their love for Jean as well.

The two met at Whitworth University in 1959. Jean was majoring in nursing education, and the school struck a deal to cover the cost of her education if she worked weekends at the infirmary. Moss came in with a sore throat.

“I just started talking to him, and I just thought, ‘This boy is so interesting, he’s not a typical Spokane person,’ ” Jean said. “He had an East Coast persona.”

Moss had a girlfriend at the time, so they didn’t date immediately, but they kept in contact.

Even after moving from Spokane for teaching positions at the University of Iowa and later Dartmouth College, where he was the art department chair, the family had a home on Waitts Lake in Stevens County, where they returned every summer. Moss had planned every detail of the house, using materials salvaged from buildings being torn down for Expo ’74, Wilson said. Some of the beams were so large they had to rip them with a chainsaw to get them small enough to use on the house. Students helped with construction, and many visited the house over the years.

Benty has fond memories of those summers, playing in the woods and riding his sister’s pony, Crysty. Playing outside was the best option, since his father needed minimal disruptions in his studio. But Benty said his father took great interest in their lives.

“He definitely had an interest in creating or even sort of curating a childhood so that it was similar to what his image or thoughts of the ideal childhood would be,” Benty said, adding that the smell of turpentine always takes him back to his childhood.

Jennifer, a poet, said growing up with an artist father, surrounded by his artist friends, has played a role in shaping her work.

“The arts, to him, were really the most important thing that somebody could do, so that was great to grow up in that environment,” Jennifer said.

One of the stories Jennifer remembers her father telling was when a teacher pulled him and his mother into a conference and said he would never go to college. Though never formally diagnosed, Moss was dyslexic, Jennifer said.

“He talked about that often,” Jennifer said. “He definitely has an aversion to authority, and that was sort of part of that.”

As a minister’s son, religion played a central role in Moss’ life and work. In an essay for Image journal titled “The Gift’s Embrace,” Moss said, “Hidden away then, deep in the artist, is an acknowledged longing to be held, captivated by a spiritual force – something unseen but sensed. And we know that if, in the encounter, we prevail, we will be rewarded with awareness, if not joy.”