Prolific Chicago artist Ben Bey passed in New York City on February 5 at the age of 81. Bey began painting in the 1960s and made his mark as a thriving artist and activist in both Chicago and New York City. Every summer, in the 1970s, he seized the opportunity to show and sell his work at art fairs and galleries in Chicago, and in the mid 1970s, in New York. In 1984, he continued his passion for creating art in New York City. Bey’s creations can be seen throughout the world, in movies, museums, businesses, and in many homes on Chicago’s South Side. Most recently, from September 13 through December 30, 2018, one of his paintings, “Struggle Black/White” was featured at the University of Chicago Smart Museum’s exhibition, “The Time is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side, 1960–1980.”
Ben (Benny) Lovett-Bey was born in the Old Town area of the near North Side of Chicago on February 19, 1938. His grandfather, Solomon Lovett, was a founding member of the Moorish Science Temple, and Bey was part of that community as a young boy. The second child and only boy of his maternal family, Bey learned at an early age that he was going to have to work hard and “hustle” to make money. He learned to paint in his twenties and found that he could make a living doing it. He was a natural. While he was perfecting his artistic talents, he worked as a chauffeur for Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonalds Corporation. W. Clement Stone, a promoter of the Positive Mental Attitude philosophy and founder of Combined Insurance Company, now AON, became Ben’s mentor and benefactor. While living in Chicago, Bey worked with Operation PUSH with Jesse Jackson and his wife Jackie.
He was also a member of The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, the Black Arts Movement, and other civic groups. He served as the Director of Art Research Department at the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago and was Service Representative at Goodwill Industries of Chicago and Cook County. His savvy entrepreneurial spirit and charismatic charm earned him friendships and collaborations with a number of Black Chicago activist artists, such as visual artist Lorenzo Pace and visual artist, writer and poet, Margaret Burroughs, who founded South Side Community Art Center, and along with her husband Charles, Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History.
In the 1970s, Bey and his artwork were featured in magazines, newspapers, and television programs, promoting the use of arts education to ease ex-convicts’ re-entry into society. Through his organization, “Looking Toward Freedom,” Bey trained numerous artists and many prisoners and ex-convicts to paint and to use their art to support themselves through organizations such as the Safer Foundation. A very charismatic Bey met many of his customers during appearances at local art festivals, where he painted and sold his colorful oil and acrylic paintings and silkscreen prints of his soulful pen and ink illustrations.
During one of his interviews, Bey was quoted as saying, “Perhaps my environment affected my youth. But, for every situation that pushes you down, there’s a whole, wide range of situations that will pick you up. Sure, I had to learn the hard way, but I learned.”
Because Bey experienced struggles as a youth, he felt that he owed something to the Black community. He therefore began what he termed, “The Ben Bey Experience,” which focused on positive images via art. Through this project, he promoted positive images of Blacks on note cards and fine arts posters. The posters were often of little Black children, including his daughter, with encouraging phrases.
After moving to Harlem in New York permanently in the mid-1980s, he continued as a painter and began designing and selling custom hats and bags. He expanded his business over the years and became a successful collectibles dealer.
Bey was an avid newspaper reader, a deep thinker and profoundly articulate. He enjoyed a life of discovery and welcomed what life had to offer him. He would often say, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” As a result of his deep belief in that sentiment, his many pursuits included collectible photographs and antiques. Due to his creativity, Bey was always exploring and always reinventing himself. He was never afraid of experimenting and leaving his comfort zone. Through his works and his deeds, he has been an inspiration to all who have met him.
Bey is survived by his wife Grace Bell; his daughter Tiana Bey; his three sisters; and four generations of nieces and nephews, cousins.
Funeral services were held in New York on Saturday, February 22, at 11:00 a.m., at Benta’s Funeral Home, 630 St. Nicholas Ave., New York, NY.
A memorial will take place in Chicago on Saturday, March 14, at Art in Motion School of Chicago, 7415 S. East End Ave., Chicago at 11:00 a.m.
The family is asking that any Chicago attendees who own an original Ben Bey painting and are interested in participating in the memorial event on Saturday, March 14, contact Victoria Woods, [email protected] or 312-547-0429. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Art in Motion School of Chicago, 7415 S. East End Ave., Chicago, IL 60649.