A colorful story about Sheridans Steve “Shooter” Benth, creating irreplaceable pinstripe art in his inspiring shop.
“Are you Shooter?”
Steve “Shooter” Benth had just stepped outside his shop and pulled the door shut behind him. It was that twilight time of evening when objects become hard to discern, especially when standing beneath the floodlight over Benth’s shop door. Shooter squinted, trying to make out the imposing figure of a man striding toward him.
“Who wants to know?” he asked with feigned bravado. (as in, “Whose husband might you be?”)
“I want you to teach me how to pinstripe.” The tall, dark young man smiled and stuck out his hand. “I’m Scott Stalick. I’ve admired your work, and I’d like you to teach me how to pinstripe.”
Benth was taken aback. In all the years he had been painting cars, doing art graphics and pinstriping, never once in all that time had anyone ever asked him to teach them his craft. With that handshake, Shooter Benth took on a protégé.
Beginning with all the menial tasks of a bodyshop, Scott dove right in. Sweeping floors, hauling out trash, it didn’t matter. Soon he graduated to wet sanding, then shaping metal and fabricating pieces under Shooter’s tutelage. Just as Bill Brown, in this very same shop in decades long past, had passed along his craft to us Conquistador teens of the ‘50s, Shooter shared with his willing pupil the tricks of the trade. From spraying primer over fresh metalwork, to shooting color in wet coats, to dragging a line with a sable brush loaded with 1Shot enamel, Shooter proudly watched his student grow in confidence and skill. To Scott Stalick, Steve Benth is a hero, just as Bill Brown stands tall in the memories of each and every young man whose future he helped paint.
What goes around, comes around. The Benth boys had, in their turn, learned from the likes of “Frenchy” Holbert and Harry Schwartz, their childhood heroes. Steve Benth, especially, displayed artistic aptitudes and talents that can’t be taught. In every sense, he was to become an artist. Early on, it became apparent, most noticeably in the building and detailing of model cars.
Pinstriping did not come right away to Shooter’s repertoire. Growing up, he was impressed with edgy art of the Beatnik Generation, of Abstract Impressionists, and the quirky influences of Salvador Dali. Especially as it would pop up in the psychedelic California scene of weirdo graphics. Ed Roth’s art caught his eye, but Shooter expressly mentioned George “Stanley Mouse” Miller, starting in Detroit and migrating to the California scene to engage in in friendly competition with Roth’s iconic Rat Fink. “I always was for the underdog,” Steve smiled. “Rat Fink always was beating the #%$& out of Mouse.”
Cartoons of weirdos had been part and parcel of his letters to brother Buddy in Viet Nam from 1969 to 1971. His first pinstriping, with a cheap brush from Dean’s Hobby Shop, and ordinary enamel from Lansings’ Sherwin Williams paint store, he recalled, was lettering John Schwartz’s nickname on his Corvette gas cap!
Nicknames. Sooner or later everyone got one, for various and sometimes unmentionable causes. “Pushbroom” was John’s monicker. The story goes that John was pressed into community service by the Buffalo, Wyoming gendarmes, sweeping up the street with a broom appropriated from the city jail. A young female companion had a glass beverage container slip from her grasp and break, in view of the vigilant crime fighters. Task done, John reached to return the broom to the civil servants. But, no, his service to the city would not be completed until he returned the broom to the jail. So, as John Schwartz told the story himself, he dutifully shouldered the pushbroom and flanked by the officers on duty, marched back to the jail, whistling the tune from the movie, “Bridge On the River Kwai.” To this day, friends and acquaintances call John Schwartz, “Pushbroom”.
I never asked Steve Benth how he came by the nickname, “Shooter”. The first time Shooter added his monicker to a bit of auto graphic art was on the tailgate panel of Frenchy Holbert’s jet black 73 Chevy Blazer. Benth had completed his artwork, and stood back with the hobby brush in hand.
“Aren’t you going to sign it?” Frenchy’s lady demanded. “All artists sign their work, Shooter.” Dutifully, in miniscule letters only the myoptic are blessed to lay down, he added the letters, “Shooter”.
The young lady then asked why it was he wasn’t using a proper striping brush. He didn’t know, he’d heard of them, but didn’t believe any were available in Sheridan, Wyoming.
“Go down to the NAPA auto parts store. They have them!” she snorted. And sure enough they did.
In doing some homework ahead of visiting with Shooter, I picked up a recent book about Kenneth “Von Dutch” Howard. It was like Order meets Chaos. And Order staggered off, totally unraveled by the encounter. I had to chuckle. The Left Side of the Brain really is different from the Right Side. No wonder Von Dutch almost never granted interviews. He floated on his own surreal seas; to attempt navigating them in a craft of Old Ironsides Logic would be like riding the Perfect Storm.
Then there was Jackson Pollock, the Abstract Expressionist born in Cody, Wyoming. After WWII, former Marine combat artist Harry Jackson made a pilgrimage from Wyoming to Long Island, where he took up residence in Pollock’s chicken coop, to study under the eccentric artist. Kind of like Scott Stalick, learning Steve Benth’s craft. Harry told me one time the prestigious Museum of Modern Art called Pollock in a panic. In mounting one of his signature canvases of free-form poured paint swirls, they discovered a cigarette butt had fallen out of the painting. Hearing only the panic over the phone, Pollock took the train in to Manhattan. When he saw his discarded butt in the trembling museum staffer’s hand, he snorted a singular expletive, turned on his heel and left.
These were the icons of Shooter Benth’s explorations of art expression. As “Stanley Mouse” had expanded into psychedelic posters, album covers for The Grateful Dead and Journey, and weirdo airbrush work, Shooter’s own work evolved. Two of his mentors locally were Bud Culver and Harold Burcell of Empire Neon. Sign shops and sign painters always have had strong influences on automotive graphics and pinstriping. By the 80s, 1Shot enamel had come onto the market, and increasingly Shooter was the 1Shot pinstriper in demand. With the times, it would only follow that Benth also would take up air brushing of graphics.
“Shooter has done so many vehicles around this country,” Scott Stalick recalled. “I used to get a kick out of spotting brand new off the lot cars he had striped, and then immediately running into a 70s truck in a parking lot that he had obviously done 30 years before. He’s painted everything from a custom chopper that shared the floor at the Grand National Roadster Show, to a new SUV that just ventures to the grocery store and back. It’s always amazed me how his talent for painting has made him a part of so many peoples’ lives, just by adding a little custom style to their ride. He’s a character, a mentor, a “make up new lyrics to a familiar song” kind of guy, but he’s a real friend to hundreds, through his work. I think that’s what it takes to be a good custom painter. Enough crazy, and enough sane, and plenty of folks to entertain.”
An early work of a more traditional look was the gold “fire engine” graphic designs he laid down over custom shades of red on a one-ton dually pickup for Bob Prill.
The Shadow, an early graphic created on Gerald Brantz’s chopped 50 Mercury, was hand painted. But the purple fade Shooter laid down on the “50s Buick” lines sculpted on the sides of the same car, was done with an air brush.
Over the years, Benth has lost track of the many cars to bear the “Shooter” signature in miniscule lettering somewhere along their striped lines.
Shooter’s own ride was “Goldfish”, a tastefully done custom gold 56 Chevy hardtop. It was his signature piece of rolling art until 1976, when a friend borrowed it and side-swiped a rural mailbox. That car remains disassembled now in back of Shooter’s shop, awaiting a resurrection day.
Steve Benth moved into Bill Brown’s old shop with the retirement of bodyman Phil Barker. In 2015, as I strolled around the place remembering old times, at every turn there were examples of Shooter’s talent. Door frames, window panes, and walls exhibit monsters, weirdos, lettering and pinstriping in Shooter’s handiwork.
One most memorable piece is a toilet seat in pinstriping and monster art. No pun intended, it calls to mind Von Dutch’s cryptic dismissal of all the automotive pinstriping he had done. “For what? What good is it knowing that everything you do is going to wind up in the scrap pile.”
Looking about this old shop, and taking in Shooter’s graphics at each turn, I’m given pause. I know there are neighbors out there who can’t wait until that day in the future when the bulldozer comes to obliterate this pea-green building. If they see an eyesore, I see an historical record of a culture generations deep. To our Conquistadors, passed down to Steve “Shooter” Benth, and even today to Scott Stalick, this place is storied. The lives touched by that old curmudgeon Bill Brown. The rolling sculpture of Ed’rd Lawrence. The irreplaceable works of Shooter’s art. A sacred place, priceless beyond measure.
One car with artwork by Shooter that is not going to the scrap pile is the 54 Buick of his protégé, Scott Stalick. This is a car with family history. Originally dragged home by Scott’s older brother, in the late 90s the Buick saw some of its custom transformations at the Wyo Tech trade school where his brother was enrolled. Then the brother moved on, leaving the Buick behind, and dad told 12-year-old Scott, “Guess it’s yours now.” And it has been ever since.
Over the years the original small Buick v8 and three-on-the-tree went away, replaced by a healthy Buick 401 and turbo 400. A 56 Olds donated a rearend, and Scott rescued a driveshaft from a car shoved over Dave Scrutchfield’s ditchbank. The car is a driver, and maintains a venerable coat of weathered black primer.
Over this base, Scott laid out designs and Shooter demonstrated his pinstriping licks, and fashioned flame graphics out of the Buick portholes. The day Johnny Cash died, Scott had Steve apply the “Johnny Cash Lives” graphic tribute on the trunk lid.
I fully believe that flying eyeball graphic draped over Scott’s dashboard has Salvador Dali, Von Dutch, and Ed Roth smiling, wherever they are. Could “Stanley Mouse” see it, too, he surely would give it a thumbs up.
Steve “Shooter” Benth has ample reason to be proud. Of his body of work, yes, but also in the young man he helped along the way, ever since that evening when he was asked, for the very first time, to teach his craft to a most willing apprentice. Today, Scott Stalick has his own small “307” business, creating graphics and designs for clothing for the young at heart. In his shop, he has even more car projects. There is a period perfect Model A in the works. And in the wings, a 59 Cadillac, a tribute to Larry Watson.
As I watched this pair exchange banter that March afternoon, I couldn’t help telling myself, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Good on you, Steve “Shooter” Benth. And you, too, Bill Brown. Wherever you are. Thanks for the memories.
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