October 20, 2018

Jack Bender’s lost and found

During his recent art show, “Junk Blessings,” at the Jewish rehab center Beit T’Shuvah, Jack Bender took the microphone and told the eclectic crowd that when he was a kid, “I’d throw paint up … and call it art. I sometimes feel like I’m still doing that.” 

It was a humble statement for a man who, though more well-known for his work directing and producing TV series such as “Lost” and “Under the Dome,” has a long history as an artist. But that’s par for the course with Bender, who seems, more than anything, to feel incredibly lucky for the success he’s found in life and for the spiritual journey he’s been on.

“I didn’t read much as a kid. I kind of learned everything I know from watching Abbott & Costello,” Bender said by phone, a couple of weeks after his Dec. 17 show benefiting Beit T’Shuvah. “The visual side of my brain was much more active, and that’s the way I learned.”

He started taking art lessons with Los Angeles artist Martin Lubner, who had a studio on La Cienega Boulevard in the 1960s. Bender would ride around town on his bike, picking up junk from alleyways and crafting it into artwork. At the same time, he was indulging his other love and sneaking into film studios. 

“I’d b——t my way onto the lot, and I’d hang out and watch movies being made, and television, which I was obsessed with,” Bender said. “I became an actor because it seemed like what I could do and make a living.”

But though he acted and later moved into directing, Bender never strayed far from his love of painting and sculpting. Over the years, he’s had five solo shows at galleries around town, by his account, and has another one upcoming in Detroit this year. 

“Junk Blessings” came out of a very personal place. Bender’s youngest daughter, Hannah Owens-Bender, spent time at Beit T’Shuvah after some well-publicized problems with substance abuse that landed her in trouble with the law during his stint on “Lost.” Bender credits the facility with having helped his daughter get her life back on track, and today she’s a successful costume designer in Los Angeles.

While Owens-Bender was at Beit T’Shuvah, Bender and his wife, Rabbi Laura Owens of B’nai Horin, became close with Beit T’Shuvah founder Harriet Rossetto and her husband and partner at the center, Rabbi Mark Borovitz. Bender even ended up writing a book called “2 Broken People,” about the couple’s incredible life stories.

“Junk Blessings” consisted of more than two dozen paintings and sculptures created by Bender and displayed around Beit T’Shuvah’s sanctuary space. The crowd was mixed, young and old alike, and many of them seemed deeply moved by the art. Among the works were portraits of Borovitz and Rossetto, as well as scenes depicting biblical figures, junkies and people from all walks of life. 

Bender’s paintings are notable for the asymmetrical faces of his subjects, and his use of texture, color and symbolism. Many of the paintings feature hamsas, which Bender said represent the hand of God to him. It’s an interesting turn for a man who was raised without much religion. 

“I grew up as an L.A. Jew with Christmas trees. My parents weren’t interested in being Jewish,” Bender said. “One of my earliest memories is of a black-and-white Abbott & Costello movie on a roof, and a big Christmas tree.” 

The image came from the fact that Bender’s father, who was a furrier to the stars, used to take him to Costello’s home in Toluca Lake around Christmas. Costello would project movies for the neighborhood children in his backyard as a seasonal treat.

When he was a kid, Bender said, his parents asked him if he wanted to go to Hebrew school or have more time to play around after school. He took the choice most kids would and never became a bar mitzvah. It wasn’t until his wife started studying to be a rabbi that Bender became more connected with his Jewish side. 

“She has opened me up to a lot of what’s just in my cellular memory,” said Bender, who now enjoys attending services even if he doesn’t know all the words to the prayers.

Bender was working on “Lost” at the same time Owens was studying at the Academy for Jewish Religion. When the opportunity came up to promote “Lost” in Israel, Bender jumped at the chance. 

“I loved Israel,” said Bender, before launching into a story about his trip to the Western Wall. He’d been promoting the show on TV there all day and finally made it to the wall just before Shabbat. As he was standing by the wall, he heard a voice. 

“The numbers. They’re in the wall.” 

Bender looked around and found an Orthodox rabbi standing near him. 

“The numbers, from your show, they’re in the wall,” said the rabbi, who then proceeded to show him that people had stuffed the mysterious series of numbers from “Lost” into the wall. 

It was one of a few times that Bender would be awed by the power of his TV work to reach people. Another time involved a combination of his two loves, art and directing. Bender was tasked with directing the show’s Season 2 premiere, “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” when two characters finally enter the series’ infamous “hatch.” Bender thought it would be interesting if the character living in the hatch had gone a little crazy and started painting. When he got the OK, Bender himself painted the mural, which became known as the “Swan Mural.”

The Internet lit up with reaction. Fans and journalists dissected the painting’s hidden meanings. There are pages upon pages on the Lost Wiki dedicated solely to interpretations of the mural. In reality, Bender said he just painted mostly what he felt like, incorporated a couple of numbers from the show and thought nothing more of it. To this day, he’s amused by the reactions people had to it. 

“At this point in my directing, I think I learned from painting how to let the spontaneity happen and be thankful when it does,” said Bender, who later went on to paint works for “Under the Dome.” “If a canvas is on the floor of my studio and my dogs walk on it … I always think it makes it better. There’s something about the ragged mistakes of making art, and actually film and television, the stuff you don’t plan on, that I actually think makes it better.”

Ultimately, that’s what “Junk Blessings” was all about — taking the twists life throws at us and making something of them. (Items from the Beit T’Shuvah show soon will be available for purchase on Bender’s website, jackbenderarts.com, he said.)

“All of us have junk in our lives,” Bender said. “The world has junk all around us. How do we transform the junk in ourselves, the junk in our lives, the junk around us, into something that’s either useful or beautiful or positive for the world?”