The potter's hands: Utah artist finds creative success after 'stepping away from fear'

Published: Monday, April 7 2014 10:45 a.m. MDT

Ben Behunin sits in front of chimney in his home in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 31, 2014.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It was late, and Ben Behunin sat at his pottery wheel, tears dripping into the clay formation as it spun at a blurring speed.

The only implements he couldn't work without, the ones his family depended on, were now throbbing in protest.

"My dexterity was gone," he said. "I felt like I had two very painful rocks stuck to the ends of my arms."

As if arthritis didn't hurt enough, the difficulty of making a living as an artist, the hours spent serving as a Mormon bishop, and an unusual but incessant prompting to finish writing a book had all but taken their toll on the 33-year-old potter.

"Something had to give. I couldn't do it all."

Dog bowls, rubber checks

Some 20 years earlier, the young student at Highland High School in Salt Lake City was sure an elective pottery class would be the easiest "A" he'd ever earned.

"It proved to be neither easy nor an 'A,'" Behunin recalled. "The only things I made were a bunch of dog bowls and dirty laundry."

Behunin's skill and enthusiasm for the craft quickly improved, earning him awards at statewide art shows and a full-ride scholarship to what was then Ricks College.

While serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Behunin discovered a nondescript pottery shop in Tiengen, Germany. After teaching and baptizing the owner, he was invited to return and work in the shop after his mission.

He would spend four months working in the small shop in Tiengen, furthering his experience in pottery and small business. He would later go on to study at BYU-Hawaii and the University of Utah.

While waiting for a girl named Lynnette, who would later become his wife, to complete an LDS mission in Spain, Behunin started working in a vacant pottery shop of a family friend. Despite repeated warnings from his parents that he'd fail as a full-time potter, he dove in, working in the shop 50 hours a week in addition to studying at the U.

"I realized very quickly if I wanted to make a living at this, I needed to jump in with both feet," he said.

For the next year and a half, Behunin faced disappointment from local art galleries, eight of which closed their doors while carrying his work.

"If they paid me at all, they paid me in rubber checks," he said. "Some took my pots, and I never saw them again."

With the $4,000 he'd earned in the first 10 months, Behunin paid for school, procured an engagement ring and bought clay with what was left over. He had always felt sure of his "calling" as an artist in a spiritual sense, but how it was going to work, he didn't know.

After weeks of hard work coupled with intense prayer, he said, he was able to open accounts with Deseret Book and other local galleries.

'Voices in my head'

One month after getting married in 1997, Behunin was alone at his pottery wheel when his "narrowly defined" calling in art began to expand.

"I felt like someone was standing behind me, telling me a story," he said. "The story was full of bits of wisdom that were way beyond anything I could imagine up at the age of 24. I don't know why this was coming to me, but I felt immediately compelled to write down the things I was hearing."

Taking time off pottery to become a writer was a risky move at best, but the prompting soon grew too strong to suppress.

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