The Anartist’s World

By Pat Nabong

Near the entrance of an art festival in Chicago’s Southport neighborhood, a woman clad in floral pants dragged a suitcase that had a paper sculpture of a dog attached to it. Passers-by stared at her luggage which was plastered with a hand-made sign that read, “Didn’t want to beg so I made this dog.” The woman, who set up a table she could paint on, was 59-year-old Betsy Benefield— the “anartist,” as she likes to call herself.

Benefield, an activist who makes a living selling art on the street, is one of millions of Americans who live with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Benefield, who uses her art as a form of therapy, is a beneficiary of Thresholds, a local organization that counsels and helps people with mental illnesses.

“She has her ups and downs,” said Patricia Staeth who became Benefield’s friend after meeting her on a bus. Staeth said that Benefield, who had once been homeless, sometimes gets “depressed because of politics” and “trying to make a living on the street.”

But mental illness is not one dimensional, and neither are the lives of people who have it. “Anartist,” a hybrid term for “activist” and “artist” that Benefield invented, perfectly describes who she is. Almost every day for five years, Benefield has been selling art around the city and trying to form a union of street artists and panhandlers. She walks around downtown with her iconic art cart and talks to street performers about artists’ rights. When she is not painting or recruiting people to her Facebook group “Chicago Street Artists and Panhandlers United,” Benefield is showing solidarity at protests, waving her American flag, which has a dove painted over the area where stars are supposed to be.

Mental illness, especially of those who have experienced homelessness, is still stigmatized, according to Emily Moen, spokesperson for Thresholds. Benefield is at the receiving end of this. Sometimes, she gets ridiculed for how she acts and lives, which triggers depressive episodes, she said. “I get a way out of it [depression], but it doesn’t mean I don’t have moments where I’m in depression to the point where I’m crying, mourning like something, someone died over a memory of something,” said Benefield. People who have mental illness have their highs and lows. But they are more than their mental state. They can be creative individuals who inspire change like Benefield.

“[People think] we’re crazy people. We’re not crazy. We’ve just been through hard times,” said Benefield.


03/05/2017, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield meets a performance artist in downtown. Whenever she crosses paths with artists and panhandlers, she convinces them to join her in standing against the City’s requirement for street artists to purchase a license. Although she is an advocate for street artists and panhandlers, she believes that panhandlers can make money out of being resourceful, like she did. “Give these people who are panhandling another way. I’m not saying eliminate panhandling because some people don’t know what they can do. Give them an opportunity to think of something better to do to make ends meet.”
2/27/2017, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield, 59, a street artist and activist who used to be homeless, paints in her bedroom. Benefield, who calls herself the “Anartist,” is one of millions of Americans who live with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. (Pat Nabong/Medill)
2/27/2017, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield paints on her bed which is stained with acrylic paint. For Benefield, art is a form of therapy. Most of her work is inspired by good and bad experiences in the past. “Sometimes a terrible thing happens to me, then a vision comes to my mind of a picture that relates to it symbolically,” said Benefield. (Pat Nabong/Medill)
08/07/2016, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield paints in front of a store after attending an art festival. When it’s not too cold outside, she spends the whole day selling and painting on the street. On some days, she earns over a hundred dollars, but most of the time, she goes home empty handed or with spare change. (Pat Nabong/Medill)
3/5/2017, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield waits to cross the street in downtown Chicago. Benefield, who makes a living selling her art on the street, lugs around a cart full of art materials and paintings whenever she leaves the house. Benefield is on food stamps and disability support, but her income comes mainly from selling her art. “I’m an artist so I chose to go out there to make art instead of stealing and being violent,” said Benefield. (Pat Nabong/Medill)
3/5/2017, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield looks at a closed exhibit in the Chicago Cultural Center. She hopes to be able to exhibit her work in a museum some day but believes that artists shouldn’t be charged for selling or exhibiting their work. “It takes time and money for me to make it [art]. It’s your soul, it’s a piece of you. And why in the world…do you have to pay for your soul to be used?” (Pat Nabong/Medill)
7/17/2016, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield paints near the entrance of an art fair in the city’s Southport neighborhood. Benefield feels strongly against the City requiring street artists to pay for a $100 performer’s license. She is trying to organize a union of street artists and panhandlers, starting with her Facebook group “Chicago Street Artists and Panhandlers United.” (Pat Nabong/Medill)
02/27/2017, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefields’s paintings, art materials, medication and stress ball are scattered on her bedroom table. Although Benefield attends therapy sessions by a local non-profit organization, she considers art as her most powerful form of therapy. (Pat Nabong/Medill)
2/27/2017, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield paints in her room. Whenever it’s too cold outside, she stays home and makes art work to sell on a warmer day. Benefield has highs and lows, but art helps her cope. (Pat Nabong/Medill)
2/27/2017, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield prepares her dinner. Benefield, lives with her cat but has a daughter and granddaughter who live in another part of the state.
03/05/2017, Chicago, Ilinois- People look at Betsy Benefield on the train. Benefield often gets a variety of looks from people– some judgmental, some curious. Sometimes, she gets ridiculed. (Pat Nabong/Medill)
01/22/2017, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield plays her makeshift kazoo during the Women’s March. Despite considering herself an anarchist, Benefield who advocates many causes, often attends protests to show solidarity and sell art. (Pat Nabong/Medill)
7/17/16, Chicago, Illinois- Betsy Benefield waves her flag, which she uses during protests, near the entrance of an art festival in Southport.