Utility Box Art Project

Barbara Benda, artist behind the Wahpeton Public Art Utility Box Project

Barbara Benda, professional artist and long-time educator, is the artist whose images are used on four utility/signal boxes in Wahpeton. Barbara’s history with Wahpeton goes back to the early 1900’s when her grandfather, Frank Benda, moved to Wahpeton and started businesses there. He and his wife, Annie Meyer Benda, became members of the Bohemian Church, St. Adalbert’s Catholic Church, in Wahpeton, and they owned land in both Richland and Wilkin County.

Frank and Annie Benda family with children, Johnny, Agnes, and Frank Jr., in their home south of Breckenridge. John later moved to 206 South 4th Street in Wahpeton. Years later, Barbara would portray her memories of her childhood home in her acrylic mixed media collage titled, The Bubblegum House, one of the images selected for the utility box project.

Frank Benda, Sr. owned three buildings on Dakota Avenue during the early 1900’s, including the Opera House (later Casper’s Furniture Store), the Sears Building, and the Benda Meat Market.  It was called Benda Block. The Benda Block brick still can be seen from across the street at the Red Door Art Gallery.  This gallery is where Barbara and twin sister Beverly have displayed their art since its grand opening, for which Barbara was the featured solo artist.

The Benda Meat Market closed after WWII and was rented by Barbara’s aunt and uncle, Elizabeth (Neva) Lockhart and Oscar Neva.  They moved to Wahpeton from their hometown of Buchanan, North Dakota. The Neva pair opened the restaurant called Kelly’s. Liz Lockhart was the pastry baker who became known for homemade banana cream pies. Barbara’s mother, Katherine Neva managed the café. Katherine married Johnny Benda in 1954, her second marriage, producing three daughters, Beatrice and the twins Barbara and Beverly. They joined five older sisters to make a family of eight girls.

Katherine Benda worked for the restaurant which was later named Clem’s until it was sold to Barry and Steve Lund, who named it Lund’s Café. Katherine worked there until her death in 1983.

Johnny Benda went to school in Wahpeton and left school during The Great Depression, one day after he and his teammates won the 1930 State High School Football Championship. Johnny’s nickname was Popeye and legend has it that no one on the other team wanted to “face Popeye on the line”. Johnny went to work for his father at Benda’s Meat Market until joining the Great Northern Railroad as an engineer. Johnny’s passion and hobby was motorcycles. He and Katherine owned Honest John’s Motorcycle Shop at their residence on 4th Street.  Johnny loved British-made bikes and stocked their shop with BSA, Triumph, Norton, as well as Indian, Suzuki, Honda, Ducati, and Kawasaki. Johnny had the #1 Motorcycle Dealer plates for North Dakota. Both Johnny and Katherine assembled motorcycles and sold motorcycles on the weekends.  Johnny would ride his favorite BSA as often as possible. He died of a sudden heart attack in 1967 at age 53.

The Benda girls attended St. John’s Parochial School, Central and Wahpeton High School. Barbara and Beverly were inspired and enlightened by their art teacher in high school, Aimee Sanger. Although the twins had loved drawing from an early age, Aimee Sanger lit the match that would continue glowing today. Barbara graduated with degrees in Elementary Education and Art Education and Beverly pursued a career in Dietetics. In 2019 the twins had a Duo Show at the Red Door Art Gallery titled, Twintuition: Paintings by the Benda Twins. Together, they have created hundreds of artworks in watercolor, acrylic, and mixed media collage. Barbara has been a professional artist for over 30 years with a 31-year teaching career at the Wahpeton Indian School and Fargo Public Schools.  Barbara teaches painting workshops from Medora to Northern Wisconsin with the assistance of Beverly.  She also teaches private and community art lessons, and, with Beverly, owns Double Trouble gallery in Moorhead, MN located at Barbara’s residence.

Having their art chosen for public art in Wahpeton has been a great honor for the Benda twins as it not only honors the wonderful memories of growing up in Wahpeton, but gives honor to their grandparents and parents who had strong ties to the Wahpeton and Breckenridge community.