Dunlap documents Benton City past with pens and paintbrushes
It was 1947 when Robert Dunlap and his wife loaded all their worldly possessions into the rumble seat of a 1937 Ford convertible and headed to Tri-Cities from St. Paul, Minn. He was 24 years old.
[blockquote quote=”I never needed a fancy studio to work in because I can paint anywhere.” source=”Robert Dunlap” align=”right” max_width=”300px”]
He worked as a draftsman at Hanford for many years before retiring from Rockwell in 1982 to pursue a graphic design business.
Today, at age 93, Dunlap is still very much connected to his artistic nature.
“I have been drawing since I was just a little kid, and eventually took up painting, too, so I guess art just came naturally to me,” Dunlap said. “I never really had anything in particular in mind when I created something.”
But then he realized how much historical significance could be captured in art.
“Since I have lived in Benton City for many years, I have many paintings and drawings about the city’s history,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap has shown his work at the Battelle Theater, county fairs and schools, but his first official exhibition will be this month at The Reach interpretive center at the west end of Columbia Park. The show includes his selection of paintings about the history of Benton City.
The show opened Feb. 26 and continues through April 17. Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for seniors and youth. Kids age 5 and younger are free.
“This really is a fantastic collection of beautiful work, and the history Bob weaves into these paintings is fabulous,” said Stephanie Button, curator of programs and education at The Reach.
As for Dunlap, he’s honored to have been asked to show his historical work, though he still considers himself a student at his craft. But there’s nothing amateur about his creations. Visitors to the show will get a glimpse of Benton City’s past, including a fabulous painting of the city’s old train station, which was demolished many years ago, Dunlap said.
“It’s truly a shame that train station couldn’t have been saved,” he said. “It used to be just off main street when you come into town.”
There are also paintings of the town’s renowned Palm Tavern, which still stands and draws a dedicated clientele today. Other paintings include the bridge that crosses the Yakima River and other familiar scenes Benton City.
“I never needed a fancy studio to work in because I can paint anywhere,” Dunlap said.
Much of his inspiration comes from the backyard of his home, which sits on a bluff overlooking several grape vineyards and wineries. He can’t really explain where his artistic mojo comes from because he was never much interested in sitting outside with an easel to create his landscape paintings, he said. Instead, he prefers to photograph scenes that appeal to him then paint them onto a canvas.
“I remember sketching something when I was 6 years old for a newspaper contest for kids. I can’t remember what I drew or whether I even submitted it,” he said, with chuckle. “At my age I tend to forget stuff like that.”
Dunlap’s also created several books for his kids and grandchildren. He commissioned the kids to write a story then he drew the illustrations.
Though drawing and painting are his first love, he also spent many years doing silk screening for various businesses around the Tri-Cities. He’s as much a cartoonist as he is an artist.
“I like to experiment with art,” he said.
One piece in The Reach show exemplifies that experimentation. Dunlap took a photo of downtown Benton City then blended the photo with his painting expertise.
His home is filled with his paintings, which are either sitting on the floor leaning against walls or hanging on living room walls. In addition to doing landscapes, Dunlap enjoys painting portraits of his children and grandchildren. His favorite painting, he said, is one of two little girls walking into an orchard in full bloom.
Dunlap hasn’t sold many of his paintings because he has a tough time letting go of his creations.
“Plus, I really am a terrible business man, I guess,” he said. “Because I feel guilty taking money for something I created. Kind of silly, isn’t it?”
Though the engaging and active 93-year-old had triple bypass surgery a few years ago, he isn’t allowing his paintbrushes get dry.
“I’m like an old car that’s been rebuilt,” he said. “Painting has been great therapy since my surgery, and it gives me a chance to preserve some history of this town I’ve called home for so many years.”