Salem artist Dago Benavidez in his studio (Courtesy of the artist)

Like most people over the last two years, Dagoverto Benavidez really needed an escape.

He’d retired from his job as a court advocate manager on the final day of 2019, just in time for him and his wife to hop on a plane to China and celebrate the new year with her family. They almost couldn’t come home - the couple snagged one of the last flights home out of Shanghai before pandemic travel restrictions kicked in.

So as the world ground to a halt, Benavidez - suddenly with a lot of time on his hands - turned to the one place that always felt like freedom to him. He turned to his art.

“That’s when I picked up the brush again and started painting,” Benavidez said. “I just love painting, but during this pandemic, God dang man. It kept me sane, is what it did.”

From his home in Salem, Benavidez started creating all the places he wished he could visit in oil on canvas. He started working from a photo of his wife at a park in China. For another painting, he was inspired by a photo a friend had posted on Facebook of her drive through the countryside.

“Painting that, I felt like I was out in the county myself. I can place myself in there,” Benavidez said. “It’s got a little red barn, and a golden wheat field and white fluffy clouds … When I do a painting, it’s kind of like I can get right inside of it.”

His style most closely reflects impressionist influences, depicting sky, sea and earth in vibrant strokes of blue and green, though many of his works also incorporate surreal elements. He admires Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. 

“If I was gonna get a little bit crazy, I love Dali,” said Benavidez, who studied art at Portland State University.

A portion of his website is devoted to “Symbolic Visions,” scenes that came to him in a dream. Another section focuses on his family and the cultural roots of Mexico, a tribute to his heritage.

Salem artist Dago Benavidez's "Purging 2020" painting (Courtesy of the artist)

While most of his work feels escapist, one piece he completed nine months into quarantine stands out as distinctly cathartic. “Purging 2020” is a four-panel work that seeks to process and expel all the trauma of the year.

In the top-left quadrant, Benavidez zooms in on Covid depicting emergency responders sweeping the streets in full hazmat suits, women in face masks and a temperature gun pointing at a forehead. The top right quadrant he devoted to the September 2020 wildfires, which left a personal scar on his family. Benavidez’s son lost his Little North Fork home in the blaze.

“It just felt good putting it on canvas, you know?” Benavidez said.

The bottom left corner of the painting he devoted to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who also died that September. The bottom right quadrant he gave “to innocence,” Benavidez said - it shows his little grandson, trotting along a path through a field of wildflowers, trailing his pet worm behind him.

Benavidez also wrote, illustrated and self-published a children’s book, a story about a child and their dog written in both English and Spanish titled “Rusty and me”/“Rusty y yo” that aims to help kids process the five stages of grief. Since the start of quarantine, he estimates he’s additionally completed eight different paintings.

“When I start on one, it's like painting is a muse to me. It’s a very jealous thing. Once I start painting, it’s like I can't get away from it,” he said. “Sometimes I hold back on starting a painting because I know that once I start, I have to get all the way through it.” 

He’s not sure what he’s going to do with the collection, which including his prior work encompasses around 30 paintings. He hopes to display them somewhere in Salem.

“I’ve been thinking about going downtown and finding an empty building and having a show - just hanging them up,” he said. “Art, it helps me stay balanced.”

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