For most of her life as an artist, teacher, and scholar, LeGrace Gupton Benson, ’51, has dedicated her work to Haitian studies. She is director of the Arts of Haiti Research Project and recently was elected president of the international Haitian Studies Association.
She discovered her passion for Haiti as a student at Meredith.
“The reason I decided to pursue Haitian Studies connects firmly to Professor Mary Lynch Johnson,” Benson said. “In all the years of my education, she was the only person who ever mentioned Toussaint Louverture, hero of the Haitian Revolution. Decades later I would discover some of the crucial documents that connected the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, English literature, and the very existence of Haiti as a free nation. After 35 years I am still engaged in trying to find out more.”
Benson earned bachelor’s degrees in art and English literature from Meredith; an MFA in art, philosophy, and education theory from the University of Georgia; and a Ph.D. in visual perception, history of art, and philosophy of education from Cornell University. She also pursued studies in theology, comparative religion, and the history of Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School of Philadelphia.
A visit to Haiti in 1981 further inspired her life’s work.
“My hosts arranged visits with key figures including artists, gallery owners, museum directors, and collectors,” she said. “Almost immediately I realized that what I was seeing was profoundly different from any of the art I had ever studied. I knew that I could choose to go back to the study of art history as I had until then come to know it. I could also choose to find out more about the mysteries I was seeing and hearing.”
She took the latter path, learning two new languages – French and Kreyòl – and broadening her study of Haiti’s art, culture, history, and religion.
Benson held teaching positions at State University of New York - Empire State College, Wells College, and Cornell University. She also is associate editor of the Journal of Haitian Studies. Her book, Arts and Religions of Haiti: How the Sun Illuminates Under Cover of Darkness, was published in 2015.
“Meredith provided me with so much more than content and skill,” she said. “I know for sure that the College and its attentive faculty prepared me to go into distant countries and unfamiliar cultures with the openness of mind and generosity of spirit that I had received at Meredith.”