Kevin Riordan: Dumpster-diving Philadelphia artist Neil Benson lets go - with a little help from friends

Neil Benson and his merry band of mavericks made art - and headlines - from the stuff other people threw away in the early 1990s.

These self-proclaimed "Dumpster Divers of Philadelphia" collected, curated, and transformed treasures they rescued from trash containers and sidewalks into something wonderful.

But Benson's commitment to what he calls "free art supplies" became more consuming after he retired from freelance photography a decade ago. As the contents in his network of informal storage spaces seemed to metastasize, his deepening devotion threatened to bury him.

Enter another merry band: a new one composed of young artists, old friends, and neighbors. They have persuaded Benson, who recently was diagnosed with diabetes and other ailments, to deaccession.

Step One: A mashup between a yard sale and an intervention over Labor Day weekend in a pal's backyard in Westmont.

"I have been saved by the kindness of my friends," says Benson, 58, a bear of a guy in a turquoise Grumpy the Dwarf cap. Somehow this chapeau works with his lavishly patterned "splash" shirt, merely one in a collection of 800. He insists he's willing to part with them all.

"I'm in a position where I don't have stuff anymore. Stuff has me," says the Center City resident, a lifelong Philadelphian. "The hoarding is over."

Benson schmoozes - the man has as much shtick as stuff - with browsers hoping for a bargain amid the thousands of household items arrayed on the grass. A corps of Moore College of Art and Design grads Benson calls "the girls who are saving my life" have created an artful arrangement of '60s picnic paraphernalia, all red Tartan plaid; an electronics section encapsulating the history of the telephone answering machine; a cornucopia of cigar boxes; and much, much, much more.

"Neil totally supported all of us when we were in art school," explains Emily Malina. "If I needed a pink tutu and a golden crown, he had it. He has so many beautiful things . . . but we've kind of watched his collecting just overtake him."

The creative director of Franklin Fountain, Old City's retro ice cream soda emporium, Malina, 28, met Benson when she moved to the 100 block of North Mole Street in 2003. He's been a fixture in that funky enclave of trinities near Broad and Race for 30 years, describing it as "a little slice of heaven."

The residents, or "moles," are a close-knit crew, says Jessica Donnelly, 28, a staff member at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Our connection is this street, this magical street . . . [where] one day we met this quirky old guy who had a lot of amazing objects."

The "Neil intervention team" came about after an incident involving a broken lock on an alley gate, says Richard Battaglia, now a resident of Washington. Benson had been accumulating locks for decades, many inside nearly inaccessible boxes.

"Not one of them worked," Donnelly says. "It was a real eye-opening moment."

Benson started collecting stamps while growing up in Logan. Like many students - in his case in the '70s at what's now the University of the Arts - he began foraging for home furnishings.

Other acquisitions followed, such as an aquamarine canister vacuum cleaner suitable for the Jetsons' Rosie the Robot and a pink Princess phone, complete with a rotary dial. Both choice items have fire-sale prices in Westmont.

Martha Gelarden, who lives in Collingswood and teaches sculpture at Moore, is ecstatic to see a Fisher-Price phonograph - one of those white plastic "close and play" numbers - "and I've got to have it," she says.

Stacey Douglas, owner of the Espressit coffee shop in Westmont, gathers material for a proposed three-dimensional mural at a Collingswood community garden.

And Leo Sewell, a former Dumpster Diver turned "found object" sculptor - his public commissions include the Liberty torch at the Please Touch Museum - loads a laundry basket with aluminum cookware.

Benson has always hoped his objects would become art.

"My dream is called 'Trash for Teaching.' I'd like to bring my stuff to the Philadelphia public schools, for art supplies, for free," he says. "All I need is distribution space."

Benson's "bread-and-butter" since retiring from photography has been jewelry made from typewriter parts. His appreciation for mechanical devices predates the art world's "steampunk" movement.

Nevertheless, his recent medical issues - including sleep apnea, cataracts, and cardiac problems ("I need a valve replacement") - provided a fresh perspective on Dumpster diving.

"I'm still a working artist, and these are my art supplies," he says. "But the fishing had become more important than the fish. . . . My pride kept me from accepting the [hoarding] diagnosis until we actually started moving this stuff. . . . My great friends are giving me a new shot at a lighter life."

It's his chance, Benson declares, for "liberation."


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845,, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at