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Former Art Teacher Diz Bensley '43 Dies at 84

A pioneer in audio visual media, Bensley taught at PA for 43 years

July 07, 2009 —Former Phillips Academy art and photography teacher Gordon “Diz” Bensley '43 died on July 2, at Lawrence General Hospital from complications of a stroke and heart attack. Bensley was a longtime resident of Andover. He was 84.

Nicknamed “Diz” for his early years drawing Disney characters, Bensley was a pioneer in audio visual media. In 1954 he started the Audio Visual Center at PA, unique in secondary school education for its use of photography, art, and slide production in classroom communication.

Born in 1924, he grew up in Summit, N.J. The son of a physician and eldest of three children, he initially saw medicine as his career. In 1943, after graduating from PA, he enlisted to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II in the 11th Armored Division. He earned a Purple Heart in the Battle of the Bulge and was later awarded a Silver Star for gallantry in action. Following the war, awaiting his return home, he developed a keen interest in art when he attended L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and worked in the studio of the cubist painter George Braque.

After graduating from Yale University in 1949 with a BA degree in philosophy, he attended the Institute of Design in Chicago, Ill., where he was influenced by architect Serge Chermayeff and the modern art movement. He was appointed instructor in art at PA in 1949, under the tutelage of Addison Gallery director Bart Hayes and artist Patrick Morgan. Bensley went on to teach at PA for 43 years, helping to build an extensive department, going from two to 12 members, which included painting, photography, sculpture, ceramics and filmmaking.

He received a Distinguished Secondary School Teaching Award from Harvard University in 1963 and was a member of the National Humanities Faculty from 1973 to 1976. He held the position of art department chairman at PA twice and served on the committee for Advanced Placement in Art for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ.  

“Mr. Bensley” or “Diz” as he was affectionately known by his students and colleagues was an enthusiastic teacher who generously gave his time and talents to others. This devotion to his students was chronicled by writer Caroline Langston in a National Public Radio story "The Leadership Only a Man Can Provide," where she explained how “Mr. Bensley’s attention gave me a wall to feel safe and the strength to imagine what I could become.” His students included well-known personalities as painter Frank Stella, sculptor Carl Andre and the late John Kennedy Jr. But it was the hundreds of non-art oriented students who took the required “visual studies” course that Mr. Bensley influenced the most.

His “How to See” slidetape series were informative and inspirational by encouraging his students to see art in everything around them. Fellow art department associate Chris Cook called him “the Pied Piper whose success in engaging many students through the magic of photography was radical in its inception and totally altered the impact of the visual arts at Andover.” Colleague Bob Lloyd added “Diz stressed learning to see rather than learning to make art.” His family often recalled the summer trips to their picturesque farmhouse in La Malbaie, Canada interspersed with frequent stops to photograph rich textures, vibrant colors or interesting shapes on a laundry clothesline, a junkyard, or dilapidated barn.

Towards the end of his teaching career, Bensley supplemented his work with professional photography. He opened and operated “Dizlo Studios” in 1978, a fashion photography studio on Boston’s Newbury Street. He later moved his studio to Andover and invited his students to participate. He retired from PA in 1992 and joined the Fenway Studios in Boston.

Predeceased by his oldest son, Peter '71, Mr. Bensley leaves his wife and fellow former faculty member, Audrey; two sons, Chris Bensley '76 of Andover, Mass., and Zach Bensley '88 of Hamilton, Mass.; two daughters, Wendy Percival '69 of Samoa, and Jennifer Eskioglou '78 of Greece; his brother, Bruce Bensley of Madison, N.J., his sister, Penny Truitt of Santa Fe, N.M., and eleven grandchildren.

Private services will be held in Andover on July 10th and a memorial service will be held at PA in the fall.

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Phillips Academy alumni who remember Diz Bensley and would like to share those memories with fellow alums can do so in the online alumni community. Click here to access the discussion forum.