Without the support of major studios, Joe Camp found private funding to produce and self-distribute his own movie filmed mostly right here in McKinney. That 1974 film, “Benji,” would go on to make $45 million at the box office on just a $500,000 budget, becoming an iconic family favorite in the process and proving that the filmmaker was correct to believe in himself and his idea.
Nearly 50 years later, the artist honoring his work sees a bit of herself in Camp’s story.
Accomplished sculptor and artist Susan Norris created a bronze statue of Benji which the city of McKinney will unveil on February 19.
Without a formal education in the arts, Norris has built an impressive career that includes a position as the Official National Artist/Sculptor for the Boys Scouts of America (BSA). Norris explained how finding a way to create her own path to success helped her follow in the footsteps of famed artist Norman Rockwell in receiving the prestigious position.
In searching for a chance to create larger works around a decade or so ago, Norris decided to look locally near her New Mexico home for potential artistic opportunities. The search led her to the Philmont Scout Ranch, the BSA’s “largest National High Adventure Base,” and the Seton Memorial Library residing within. It was there, at the library dedicated to one of the founders of the BSA, where inspiration struck.
“I walk in there and I see this portrait of this man, who was Ernest Thompson Seton, and it sparked me,” Norris said, describing how she looked nearby and saw an artistic work from the celebrated writer and first and only Chief Scout of the BSA titled, “Triumph of the Wolves.” The painting, massive in scale and stark in its graphic depiction, became an inspiration for Norris. “It was an epiphany moment, really.”
“I went home and researched. I left there that day knowing what I was going to propose,” Norris said. “About a week later, I had some sketches, and I made an appointment, showed it to them, and then they directed me to the right people.”
The resulting commission from the BSA a year later, which Norris conceived of on her own accord, was for the bronze statues that now reside outside the National Scouting Museum in Cimarron, New Mexico. Later, when the BSA put on a call for a new national multi-medium artist, Norris said the relationship she built through that past work with the organization helped her receive the prestigious role.
“That’s how it started, just with me proposing an idea without there being any need for it, and here I am,” Norris said. She explained that while her story of earning the position isn’t the same as that of Camp’s creation of Benji, they share a strong belief in their own ideas that led them to success.
Now, in her official role with the BSA, Norris has created a number of works for the organization, including sculptures that represent some of its highest awards.
Her career has also allowed her to work with charity groups, specifically those that work for veterans’ causes. Those causes are very close to her heart due to her family’s history.
“My mother’s father was a Lutheran minister in East Prussia and was taken away to the Dachau Concentration Camp because he spoke against Hitler and he died there,” Norris said. “Because of that, I think as I got older, I really realized the reason I have the freedoms I have is because of people who fought for what was right. And so, I have a lot of respect for veterans, and I felt I could do something to help them.”
Norris, a first-generation American, has worked with groups like local DFW nonprofit the Tribute to Valor Foundation as a result, serving on the organization’s board of directors. The group works to inspire students through the values within the Medal of Honor award.
It also led her to create artwork dedicated to veterans such as “My Hero, My Friend.” Norris crafted the bronze sculpture to honor the bravery and loyalty of military service dogs.
While that sculpture does mark just one of the many artistic works Norris has created throughout her career based around dogs, it still didn’t prepare her for all the challenges that would lie ahead with the Benji sculpture.
At what Norris notes is around 20 inches, the Benji bronze is much smaller than her other sculptural work like “My Hero, My Friend” given the size of the dog it’s intended to immortalize.
That smaller workspace, paired with the instant recognizability of the famous movie dog and the many parties involved in the project, made the sculpture particularly challenging for Norris to create.
“It was one of the most, believe it or not, difficult sculptures for me because I had so many people to make happy to get it right,” Norris said, referring to all those involved with the commission, including Joe Camp himself and the city of McKinney as well as the general public.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that resulted in the final Benji sculpture changing in form from the original drawings of the plan she produced months ago. Norris says she spent time talking with Camp about the making of the movie and learning stories from the set regarding Benji himself to help guide her process.
“We talked about what Benji would do and what Benji wouldn’t do,” Norris said, explaining that she learned more about the specific ways Benji would carry himself in order to find a pose and expression for her sculpture that would match what people recognized.
“A minor change in the tilt of the head changed the whole expression and attitude of the sculpture,” Norris said, noting that the sculpture took about a month of her sole attention to complete in whole.
“I loved it. I loved the project,” Norris said of the entire process, challenges and all, of creating the bronze.
The city will unveil the results of Norris’ hard work at a statue dedication during the annual Krewe of Barkus Mardi Gras parade in Historic Downtown McKinney on February 19. The dog-themed celebration is a fitting place to honor both the iconic movie and the new artistic centerpiece for the city.
Head to Visit McKinney to learn more details about the parade as well as Benji’s ties to the city. The Krewe of Barkus parade is free to attend and will begin at 2:00 p.m. with the statue unveiling occurring at 2:30 p.m. on the stage by Dr. Glenn Mitchell Park.