Community: Artist teaches colorful lessons on oak trees

Community: Artist teaches colorful lessons on oak trees
Jennifer Bentson paints a watercolor of an oak tree outside of the Creative Arts Center in Burbank. (Photo by Joyce Rudolph)

Watercolor artist Jennifer Bentson has become an educator of oak trees, a vocation acquired quite by accident.

The Glendale resident has created a series of paintings and sketches called "California Oaks As Art," and the more than 50 works are on display at the Burbank Creative Arts Center through Sept. 28. There was an opening reception for the exhibit this past Friday night.


The collection follows her journey depicting significant oak trees throughout the state that she considers treasures.

Visitors are drawn into the pieces upon reading the captions telling the story of each oak. One such story is the time Bentson climbed a hill for an hour and a half to paint the 13,000-year-old Palmer's oak, considered among the oldest living plants, near Riverside.

The artist started painting in the 1970s while earning a degree in education at the University of Arizona. She couldn't afford a camera, but a box of paints was in the budget, so she took it along while backpacking each weekend.

"You'd see something and you'd say to yourself 'I gotta capture this'," she said. She continued to paint over the years, but decided to take classes after her husband died in 2006.

She delved into figure and portrait painting at the Animation Guild in Burbank and brush painting on a trip to China. For peaceful inspiration, Bentson would go to Descanso Gardens and take in its beauty, often lying under an oak tree.

Looking up, she noticed how the tree limbs mimicked those of the human body. That sparked her fascination with oaks with their twisted branches jetting out in various directions.

She studied her subjects so intently, she formed an attachment to them and the environment surrounding them, she said.

"When you paint something, you bond with it. You go into a state where you are not just looking at it, you are focused on it so much, you really get to know them," she said.

And no two oaks are alike, just like people. Someone asked her once if she felt something while she painted them.

"I kinda feel an oak has a little bit of a soul, and that if you let yourself be open to it, you can receive that connection," she said.

Her first oak tree commission in 2011 was to paint a large Engelmann oak at Caltech in Pasadena. The tree was nearing its end of life and officials at Caltech wanted to have a lasting memory of it.

That launched her series "California Oaks as Art" and then she was encouraged to submit a grant proposal to the city of Pasadena. The result was the publication of a book that features her paintings of interesting oaks throughout the city. The book was available during the opening reception.

The companion exhibit features leaf and tree sculptures by fiber artist Smadar Knobler, which is the perfect match for Bentson's works.

During the opening reception, guests mingled while listening to musician Steve McCroskey on acoustical guitar. McCroskey composed music for a poem by Bentson titled "The Earth, the Oak and Me" and it had its debut that evening.


People often refer to Bentson as an environmental activist.

"I tell them I'm not an activist — I'm bringing the oaks to you to appreciate and learn," she said.

Big Strike Auction benefits Boy Scouting

Technology will make bidding convenient even if you can't attend the 42nd Big Strike Auction this Saturday benefiting the Verdugo Hills chapter of the Boy Scouts of America.

Doors will open at 6 p.m. at the Calamigos Equestrian banquet hall inside the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, 480 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

New this year, the bidding can be done by mobile device, said chief executive Mark Kraus.

Longtime radio personality "Shotgun" Tom Kelly will be the auctioneer.

Tickets are $125 per person, $240 a couple. They can be purchased online at or call (818) 243-6282. Proceeds will benefit the more than 2,200 youth in the council's territory.

JOYCE RUDOLPH can be reached at