When Mary Stuart Masterson is first seen in Benny & Joon, she is in full splatter, painting in a glass-enclosed, light-filled studio overlooking the Spokane River. For her character, the mentally ill Joon, painting is integral — an essential means of expressing herself. For the actress, the paintings also had special meaning: She helped create them.
Initially, Spokane-based artist Harold Balazs was brought in to provide the canvases. But, as production designer Neil Spisak explains, ”Balazs’ style was more accomplished and more sophisticated” than what was needed. So Spisak, along with assistant art director Troy Sizemore, agreed on an unusual approach: They scoured thrift stores for old paintings and recycled them by having Masterson and scenic artists paint over them to create new works.
”It was a long process,” says Spisak, who originally envisioned the paintings in the styles of abstract artists such as Helen Frankenthaler (airy and colorful) and Jackson Pollock (high energy). But when Masterson was given paint and brushes and encouraged to play around with them, things changed. She and director Jeremiah Chechik decided Joon’s art should be more representational, ”more figurative,” says Spisak, ”because there is such a passive quality to her character — she’s in her own world where the paintings and the studio are safe,” and she can express herself freely. Both Masterson’s originals and recycled canvases were used in the film.
Masterson makes no claims to being a great painter — she cites Sesame Street as her main inspiration — but adds, ”I never had the nerve to paint before. It definitely became a great outlet.” Fans can forget about owning any of the featured art — most of the paintings were destroyed in a fire sequence that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film. Besides, says Masterson, ”I don’t think anyone would want a Mary Stuart Masterson original hanging anywhere other than in their bathroom.”