Iliyana Beneke looked across the small, packed art gallery in Maple Grove on Sunday and felt the warmth of support in her time of grief.
Friends hugged, a guitar player sang, paintings and sculptures created by Beneke's late husband graced the walls and front windows.
Jacob Beneke, 34, was gone in an instant, a shock that his family couldn't comprehend, when a newly fired employee brought a pistol into Accent Signage Systems in late September, killing him and five others doing work there at the time. Gunman Andrew Engeldinger, who family members said struggled with mental illness, then took his own life. It was the worst workplace violence in recent Minnesota history.
On Sunday, Iliyana Beneke said the crowd gathered in her husband's honor was comforting. "It helps with the healing process to see that people care and people are appreciative of his art and people are here for our support," she said.
She watched the couple's 6-year-old son, Radomir, in the crowd. "It's been hard. He's asking a lot of questions but I don't think he fully realizes it yet."
Friends held the fundraiser Sunday at the Maple Grove Arts Center to help the family and remember the man they described as creative, energetic and caring.
Jacob and Iliyana met while they both worked at a resort in Lutsen. She was from Bulgaria. He had grown up in New Albin, Iowa, near the Mississippi River. As a couple, they loved to travel. He studied art abroad before moving to Maple Grove.
Jacob's art evolved as his horizons expanded, his family said. A longtime painter, he began creating mixed-media sculptures about 10 years ago using old bike parts, rebar, farm machinery and other metal, transforming them into flowers, animals and other forms. He even got his dad, a longtime construction industry worker, to rummage through the dump near his home in Houston County, looking for pieces that could be turned into something beautiful.
"The mind of an artist must be a very complicated place," Bruce Beneke said Sunday, looking at his son's abstract paintings and tall, curved sculptures of rebar stems topped with metal flowers. "Looking at all these things and trying to express what you're thinking."
When Beneke wasn't working as a designer for the sign company or spending time with his family, he was creating the sculptures in the garage at home. He was always thinking of something new to create, friends said. He was getting more commission work and becoming more well-known in the local art world.
"He never gave up," Iliyana said. "He kept pursuing his art dream."
Jacob got along well with people and would have attended such a gathering for someone else, said his mother, Deb Beneke.
"He was at such a good point in his life. ... He was so happy with his life and his work," she said. She was proud to watch her son grow into the man he was, she said. "I think that's part of why the hole is so deep. We're never going to be the same. ... It just was so senseless."
In an artist's statement posted on the gallery walls Sunday, Beneke wrote of his passion for giving disposed objects new life.
"Nothing is finite," he wrote. "Even fragile human life becomes part of the Earth as the physical form reduces to ashes. Life then renews as plants and animals thrive from those ashes."
Deb Beneke looked at her grandson, bouncing through the gallery, and said the family sees in the child the artistic gene of his father. "You're not supposed to see your child die," she said. Later, she added, "I think he'll live on in Rado."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102