Dual artistic sensibilities share space in a Parkside townhouse.
Julie Mattei-Benn was an art director at J.Crew when a headhunter tapped her for a job at L.L.Bean. At the time, she and her husband, painter Leon Benn, were living in Brooklyn. They hadn’t been thinking of making a move, but the opportunity was intriguing, especially given Leon’s previous experience with Maine. When he was in college at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), he had a classmate and close friend who brought him several times to a family camp on Sebec Lake, northwest of Orono. Leon had found the place magical. What’s more, despite his Brooklyn address, the outdoors was a significant source of inspiration for Leon’s work, which often dwells on the relationship between humanity and nature. Leon and Julie had a baby, Georgia, who could also benefit from life outside of the city.
As soon as L.L.Bean reached out to Julie, she began scouring online real estate listings. Initially, she had the fantasy of living on the water, but quickly realized that was cost- prohibitive. Then she came across a listing for the Victorian townhouse she and Leon eventually purchased. She thought, “This is the Brooklyn brownstone we would never be able to get in Brooklyn.” Though wood-shingled, the duplex had other features of New York brownstones: three high-ceilinged floors, a basement, steep half stairs to the front door, and a bay facade.
Despite the appeal, Julie thought the house might be too big and in some ways “not exotic enough,” reminiscent as it was of the city they were leaving behind. But then she and Leon reversed their thinking. With its Parkside address, their transition would be less jarring than if they moved to the woods. In Portland, they could more readily meet people, tap into the art community (which includes many RISD alums), and walk to places they liked. Deering Oaks Farmers’ Market is now a favorite destination, as are Hot Suppa, Tandem Coffee, and Salvage BBQ, which Georgia loves for its video games and finger food. The basement became Leon’s studio. Despite its age, the house had been renovated in 2007, so the Benns could simply move in.
Inside, the house has a double parlor on the first floor with a kitchen in back, as well as two staircases to the second floor, one leading to back rooms, which were likely once maid’s quarters, and are now bedrooms. Period detailing includes a curved staircase with turned balusters, fireplaces, moldings, and hardwood floors. The back parlor floor has a rectangle of dark wood surrounded by lighter wood. The original 1890 inhabitants would have put a rug over the darker area, thus the decision to use less costly wood there. The Benns like the contrast and have left the floor uncovered.
Not every house feels like a neat expression of its occupants’ lives, but Julie and Leon’s does. Within the historic shell, the furnishings and light fixtures are contemporary, purchased from IKEA, West Elm, and Room and Board. Everything else is one-of-a-kind, as the walls are filled with art, either Leon’s paintings, pieces by friends, cherished purchases, or gifts. Bookshelves (one of which Leon built) hold books about artists, poetry, and literature in French and English.
Julie was raised in Paris and came to the States to attend California Institute of the Arts, drawn to study in this country because she grew up watching American TV and had “a fantasy of the American vernacular in the 1980s.” The couple met two months after Julie moved to New York for work. Friends introduced them at a Bastille Day party.
Leon makes large-scale, vibrant paintings with flat shapes and partially abstracted imagery from the natural world. His process is unusual, as he dyes canvas with color or bleach then transforms his surfaces with a faux batik process, all before he begins to paint in oil. “It’s sometimes fun to paint the negative space with a pattern and have that be a counter-play to the landscape,” he says. This tension is evidenced in two dining room paintings, which are of birdhouses. The surroundings suggest the kind of textile or wallpaper-derived design that you might see in a Matisse.
Julie’s parents now live largely in Morocco, which accounts for the house’s textiles and colorful vintage food baskets, as well as many of Leon’s canvases. On a trip to Morocco, he found a master weaver who produces a hybrid of linen and polyester, a material that Leon now imports, stretches, and paints. Her parents also gifted Julie four small paintings of a dark abstracted figure on a flat plain of somber color. The paintings, by the French artist Robert Quenioux, hung in Julie’s girlhood home, and Leon was taken with them when he first saw them. Another gift is a sculpture of colored pencils stacked in a large block of clear resin by the French artist Arman, a family friend. Julie’s father gave the sculpture to her when she was accepted into art school.
Julie’s work is graphic in nature and less on display in the house. She has hidden a bird’s head, done in pen and ink with wash, among a variety of small framed works that hang, salon- style, on the stairs between the first and second floor. Similar groupings of small framed work are in the upstairs hall.
A few pieces reference Maine, if only slyly, as with a vintage French schoolroom vocabulary poster that hangs underneath the front staircase. Julie’s cousin is an antique dealer, and she and Leon picked this particular educational poster because it depicts a lobster. Another nod to their new home is an Audubon bird poster in the dining room, under which sits a decoy they found at Cabot Mill Antiques in Brunswick. Though all the ducks they saw while shopping were beautifully painted, they chose one with a dull finish, because Leon appreciated the focus on form.
A particularly fun artwork is a playful chart by Andrew Kuo of Queens illustrating how to waste time. Its full title is Anatomy of a Wasted Work Day on October 9, 2008 (Stuffed Up Nose Face). The Benns had their wedding party at Taxter and Spengemann, a (now defunct) Chelsea gallery. A show of Kuo’s work was up at the time. Julie’s best friend was the gallery director and managed to secure the piece as a wedding gift.
As for wasting time, the couple seem to be doing little of it, kept busy as they are by their respective jobs, visiting places like Ferry Beach and Mackworth Island (for the fairy houses), and finding new items for their house at places like Portland’s Flea for All. The couple’s approach to hanging art might be a metaphor for their approach to their lives in general. “Julie was the mastermind for organizing the artwork on the walls,” says Leon. “I was the one not rushing, letting it simmer in the mind, so we can be conscious of what we do. Then we will realize where we need to put things.”