Art school friends, neighbors take time to find they’re life partners

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in an intermittent series of love stories, spotlighting both newlyweds and couples celebrating anniversaries.

These true tales are of how the couples met, how they knew they had found the right one — and how they navigate through the rough spots.

SEATTLE ­– Teresa and Ben Hanawalt aren’t yet 30, but they’ve already cleared a lot of bumps from the relationship road.

Teresa, a fiercely independent product of Port Angeles, finally married Ben, a visual artist from Rivergrove, Ore., last summer. This was after a decade of admiring each other from afar, and then at medium and close range.

For about three years after both moved to Seattle to attend Cornish College of the Arts, they were just friends, each eyeing the other amid a larger circle of neighbors who hung out together.

At Cornish, he was studying illustration while she developed as a dancer — and since their departments were entirely separate, they followed separate paths to graduation.

Fortunately for them, Ben and Teresa lived in the same apartment building, so “she was literally the girl next door,” Ben recalled.

Still, “she was mysterious. I was always very attracted to her . . . and I was a big fan of Cornish dance performances. I saw her dance a lot through the years.”

At the same time, “Ben was kind of the art hotshot, but not in a cocky way. He had a humble confidence,” Teresa said. “And he was very respectful . . . I sensed the kindness in him.”

When asked how friendship turned into romance, both laughed. Mysteriously.

“It was on her 21st birthday,” is all Ben will say.

And from that day forward, he and his bride agreed, they fit.

“Things felt very comfortable very fast,” said Ben, now 29.

“Within two weeks of starting a romantic relationship, I brought him home to meet my family,” added Teresa, 28. “All my doubts with other relationships weren’t there.”

Met the family

Meeting Teresa’s Port Angeles family was no small thing. She’s the eldest of five daughters of Marvin Kuist, a medical technologist at Olympic Medical Center, and Helen Cowan, owner of the CinderHelen cleaning service. Her maiden name was Teresa Cowan-Kuist.

Teresa’s mother was fairly smitten with Ben, in part because she found him so much like her husband, Marvin.

“Both of them have really good hearts. When they love somebody, they will do absolutely everything for them,” Cowan said.

“He is very solid,” she added, recalling the day Marvin suffered a heart attack some years ago. “Ben was there with Teresa,” Cowan said, “almost before we were.”

Ben also takes a keen interest in his four sisters-in-law, she added. When Teresa’s youngest sister Roisin, 13, was taking guitar lessons, Ben sat and played along with her whenever he visited.

For Teresa, Ben is a mate who both supports her and gives her room to grow.

She’s established her own modern dance company, the Northwest Dance Syndrome, and teaches Pilates and dance classes at the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle’s Bodycenter Studios and other locations.

The Syndrome, meanwhile, performs all over Seattle and environs and has made three trips this decade to the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts.

“My time and energy is occupied by dance,” Teresa said.

After a full day at work, she goes to nighttime rehearsals and performances, while “Ben allows me the space to not feel guilty about my commitment” to her art form. He knows how to give her “breathing room,” she said.

Ben, for his part, shows and sells his paintings, drawings and collages in galleries across the city, and at benjaminhanawalt.blogspot.com.

About two years ago, Ben and Teresa realized they did have “issues.”

Trouble spots had cropped up after they’d begun sharing a tiny apartment, so although they weren’t married, or even engaged, they sought help from a counselor.

“It wasn’t a crisis, but we both had things we needed to work on,” Ben said.

“The counselor helped us defuse the big fights by seeing them coming,” Teresa added.

Housework an issue

As with many couples, housework was a thorny thing piercing both partners’ sides.

Teresa said she’d fallen into a pattern where she’d work all day and most of the night, and come home at 10 p.m. not having had dinner.

“I was tired and hungry and wondering if he’d cleaned up this and cleaned up that,” she remembered.

“I would walk in the door, and get in a snit,” upon seeing that the chores on her mind were, in fact, not done.

But “I learned the skill of talking myself down: I’m going to eat some food, and then I can calmly ask him “about the housework.”

“We each had little things that, on the surface, don’t seem like a big deal, like doing dishes and putting stuff away,” Ben added.

Waiting for a peaceful moment to talk about them, he said, kept those things from “driving us crazy.”

Meanwhile, Ben was waiting for that perfect moment to propose.

“I always wanted to be married,” he said, “eventually.”

Ben’s not one to rush forward, then, when life is running smoothly.

“I do things very slowly,” he admitted.

Romantic proposal

But in November 2008, there came a major event in this artist pair’s life: their first trip to New York City.

Around midnight on their second night there, they rode together up to the Empire State Building’s observatory — but not before the metal detector almost exposed the engagement ring Ben had slipped into his pocket.

He managed to keep it hidden from Teresa, though, and they ascended to the 86th floor. It was a Monday or Tuesday night, so “we pretty much had the place to ourselves,” Ben recalled.

So with New York City sparkling below, he asked if she would spend her life with him.

“The story of my proposal is romantic; very not me,” Ben said. “It’s almost too cheesy. I knew she wouldn’t see it coming. And she had no idea,” he said.

“She broke down in tears,” which he captured with his camera.

Their wedding weekend, Aug. 28 and 29, was more typical of the couple: nontraditional — and full of “unadulterated joy,” as Helen Cowan put it.

Ben and Teresa were married in a quick ceremony at the King County Courthouse; afterward they went out to dinner with family and the next day threw a party at the Washington Park Arboretum.

Among the guests were Amos, their pit bull, and Ruby, a Rottweiler-Australian shepherd-Shar Pei mix.

The dogs posed patiently for many of the wedding pictures; Ruby wore pearls to match the bride’s gown and parasol.

“They’re a huge part of our life,” Teresa said with a laugh. “We live in a very small-one bedroom, so we can’t escape them.”

________

Reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.

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