The potter's hands: Utah artist finds creative success after 'stepping away from fear'
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.
"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.
The "bits of wisdom" he had experienced came out in the story of Isaac, the wise potter at Niederbipp.
"I would often write myself into a corner where I had no idea where the story was supposed to go," he said. "I would go downstairs and work on my pottery, and all the people of Niederbipp would come have tea parties in my head as I worked, and all the answers would come."
After multiple edited manuscripts "dripping with red ink," "Remembering Isaac" was published in 2009, with Costco and Deseret Book emerging as willing sellers.
Other silver linings unfolded. While writing his book, he and his wife made the final payment on their home. In 2010, Behunin found a treatment that eliminated the pain in his hands.
Despite how much had gone wrong, Lynnette Behunin was never surprised by all that went right.
"With Ben, he makes things happen. There's a magic about him," she said. "We took steps in the dark, and ways opened up."
'Stepping away from fear'
By 2011, the Behunins had saved enough money to make some improvements to their home. They and their two children moved into Lynnette's parents' basement while the house underwent a six-month transformation.
"I wanted it to be a place where people could come and feel something different, to be inspired by, if nothing else, the color and creation," Ben Behunin said.
And color and creation is what prevails at the Behunin house, the culmination of a 26-year pottery career. Five hundred square feet of hand-made tiles adorn the floors and walls, inside and out.
"More than anything, I just love the feel of the house," Lynnette Behunin said. "It's just a peaceful, cozy feeling, a place that welcomes you."
After three years of no arthritis, the pain returned in one of Behunin's thumbs in January. It's a scary prospect, one he may have to live with for the rest of his life.
"It's something I have to go to battle with every day," he said. "You can either buy into fear and let it paralyze you, or you can buck against it and make the best with what you have."
As for the voices in his head, Behunin says "they're louder than they ever have been," having published five more books after his first.
It's all part of an impetus to spread creativity, to be molded by love and not fear, to "make the world a happier, crazier, kinder, more colorful place."
And creativity, he says, doesn't cost much.
"It just requires stepping away from fear."
Ben Behunin will be signing his books at Eborn Books, 254 S. Main, on April 10 from 11 a.m. to noon. The Behunin home, 1150 E. 800 South, will be open to visitors Mother's Day weekend, May 8, 9 and 10.
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