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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Ben Behunin glazes bowls in his studio in Salt Lake City. The X-rays of his hands, background, exhibit the early signs of his struggle with arthritis.

It's a feeling of childish excitement as you open the gate that leads to Ben Behunin's backyard studio.

Creativity seems to thrive here, where whimsical metal sculptures are scattered about and a hut-like kiln squats in the yard. Knock on the studio door and you'll be invited into an office where the floor is brushed with clay dust, and an organized mess of pottery, paints and plaster molds line the walls.

The only thing that doesn't quite belong in this artist's playground is a sheet of X-ray film, taped to a window.

The film shows an outline of Behunin's hands as they looked in 2004, about a year after he was diagnosed with arthritis. Some of his finger joints are mildly swollen in the painful trademark of this autoimmune disease.

Behunin admits the irony of arthritis choosing to attack his hands — his primary work tool. He is one of a handful of Utahns who throw clay full time and has been forced to slow production and alter his work style to care for hurting hands.

He is only 34 years old.

"It's kind of a disheartening thing," said Behunin, who likely inherited his disease from a grandfather. "My doctors have told me if I continue to do what I am doing, I should plan on not having much use of my hands in my older years."

As he speaks of the future, Behunin stands behind a few buckets of glaze, tightly gripping the base of a bowl in one hand and squirting designs onto the piece with his other hand. The way he holds the bowl hurts his hands, Behunin said.

So does his work on the wheel, an instrument he once used as much as four times a week. Now most of Behunin's creations are built by hand with slabs of clay and plaster molds.

It doesn't hurt as much.

But the pain isn't what he wants people to focus on. Behunin is careful to emphasize he is happy and optimistic, despite his hands.

"It has caused me to look at what I can still do more than it has ever caused me to curse the things I can't do anymore," Behunin wrote in an e-mail following a visit to his studio. "I may not be able to do everything I want to do, but who can? I have always found that optimism allows me to see things as blessings that others might see as a curse. I am confident everything will eventually work out."

For now, he has no plans to change his career. Business has slowed as a result of his hands, but colleagues say he isn't hurting financially. Behunin currently ships pieces to about 100 galleries across the nation and designs ceramic tiles to decorate back-splashes and fireplaces.

Recently he created a 26-inch baptismal font for an Anglican church in Park City. The basin for the font was made with 40 pounds of clay and had a 75-pound pedestal. It took Behunin, who also serves as the bishop of his LDS ward, three tries to finish the font; the first time it warped in the kiln and the second time it cracked.

"It threw me into a world of hurt," Behunin said with a wry smile.

But he keeps working. Passion is evident in his creations, which are fanciful and different. Each piece has personality, and his tea pots in particular, which are designed with asymmetrical handles, legs and spouts, almost look as if they might come to life.

Behunin calls his style a little bit attention-deficit disorder, but on drugs.

His wife, Lynnette, said his creations are "funky and fun-loving."

It's a style that fits her husband's personality.

"He's a people-person," Lynnette Behunin said. "He loves being around people and he's a thoughtful people-person."

More than anything, she said Behunin's arthritis has been a source of frustration. Her husband is self-motivated and a workhorse and being forced to slow his production has been challenging.

"It's just been a frustration and we're trying to work through it," Lynnette said. "It has made things a little uncertain for him, but, yet, things keep kind of falling into his lap for something new."

She said she could never imagine her husband completely giving up clay.

"Clay is so much a part of life," Lynnette Behunin said.

Jim Simister, a Coalville potter who owns Sunstone Pottery, said only people with a true passion enter his profession. The work takes a physical toll and is difficult to do without a secondary income. Simister himself has a side gig selling raw materials and clay to high schools and independent potters.

He raised five children on his wages and said while Behunin's production has slowed, he knows the potter isn't hurting financially. Other friends say Behunin is as good at managing the business-side of his job as he is artistically.

"You've really got to have a desire to do it," Simister said of the job. "It's almost like a calling. I don't know if I ever chose this. I think it probably chose me."

Behunin said he feels spoiled to have made a living for 12 years creating artworks from clay.

"I dream about it," he said in seriousness, later saying that he and his wife joke that pottery is his "jealous mistress."

And despite the challenge of arthritis to his career, Behunin said he has learned to appreciate the things he currently has.

"I know the circumstances I have been given are not the best, but I have a good life and I am happy to have had a career doing what I love to do for the past 12 years," Behunin wrote in an e-mail. "I have been very spoiled in many ways and if that all ended today, I would be sad, but also grateful for 12 wonderful years."

Upcoming events

Ben Behunin and his Wild Rooster Artworks will be on display at several events this year. You can also see his artwork online at: www.potterboy.com.

Utah Arts Festival

June 26-29, Library Square, Salt Lake City

Park City Arts Festival

Aug. 2-3, Main Street, Park City

Annual Seconds Sale

Sept. 1, 1150 E. 800 South

Clay Arts Utah Holiday Sale

Nov. 28-29, Rose Garden Center, Sugarhouse Park

Wild Rooster Artworks Annual Studio Open House and Sale

Dec. 6, 13, 20, 1150 E. 800 South


E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com