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

Published: Monday, April 7 2014 8:50 p.m. MDT

"There were times the voices in my head would come fast and furious," he said. "I would often get up in the middle of the night and write for a couple hours then go back to bed."

After a year of splitting precious time between writing and pottery, his computer crashed, and the story was lost.

He started over.

The writing came faster from then on. Visions and memories of visitors coming and going at the pottery shop in Tiengen formed the basis of a similar, yet fictional story: Isaac Bingham, a seventh-generation potter in a Quaker town called Niederbipp, hosts visitors who regularly come to his pottery shop to listen to the wisdom he shares.

The story was put on hold as Behunin moved in and out of another shop before building his own studio behind his house in Salt Lake City. After exhausting his family's savings to build the studio, post-9/11 economic conditions ushered in renewed financial fears for the family. His wife had also quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom for their infant son, Isaac.

"I remember looking at my shop and my home and realizing, 'I could lose all of this. People don't really need pottery,'" he said.

Ben and Lynnette decided the next step was to pay off their house. Behunin started selling pottery to vendors at an art show in Philadelphia, going through 10 tons of clay each year.

All the while, he said, the main character of his book "kept chirping in my ear and refused to leave me alone."

'Discussion with the heavens'

In 2003, Behunin's middle right finger — the one critical to "throwing" clay on a pottery wheel — went stiff. Painfully stiff. Within days, the pain and swelling spread to his entire right hand.

That year, at age 30, he was diagnosed with arthritis.

"It's a real big bummer for anybody, but, for a potter, it's a major deal," he said.

His work changed. He immediately went from being able to throw clay on the wheel 20 days a month to just five days. He transitioned into working with slabs and tiles, finding ways to mitigate the pain. But the fear of what the pain meant never left.

"It was really tough and scary," he said. "All the old fears about losing the house and the studio and everything else came back."

Five months after his diagnosis, Behunin was called to be the bishop of his LDS ward. A daughter, Eve, also arrived.

Years went by, and the pain, now in both hands, continued. He welcomed every method of treatment he could find: cortisone shots, chiropractic procedures, acupuncture and "all sorts of voodoo." Nothing was helping.

His parents' caveat of failure burned in his mind, fueling life's fiery kiln that seemed to hold him captive.

One night, he'd had enough.

"That night sitting at the wheel as my tears were falling into my pots, I had a discussion with the heavens:

"Why is this happening to me? I'm trying to serve, raise a family, get out of debt and do everything I'm supposed to."

Then, he said, "I felt very strongly a voice speak to me: 'Ben, the experiences you were given were meant to be shared with others. Hurry up and get on with it.'"

The book had to be finished.

He couldn't drop pottery completely as the art show in Philadelphia represented 80 percent of his family's annual income. Compromising, he dedicated his mornings to finishing the book while he continued to make pottery in the afternoons. The arthritis prevailed while he wrote, though it was "a different experience," he said.

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