Ben Behunin, artists have a responsibility to illuminate the world

Story and slideshow by NATHAN ASTILL

Experience the artwork Behunin has created in his Salt Lake City studio.

Ben Behunin quickly wipes the excess dust away from his ceramic pieces with a sponge. He has the practiced efficiency that only years of experience can bring. The artist moves between a metallic sink and a shelf that holds the ceramic dishes he is working on in his studio at 1150 E. 800 South in Salt Lake City. His sentences flow out in a smooth, nonchalant way. “I feel like artists have a responsibility to illuminate the world,” he says.

He is glazing bowls, painting them black with a brush as he speaks. “Art is anything that is done to the highest level, whether it’s making sandwiches or mowing lawns,” Behunin says. “Life would be so much better if everyone considered themselves artists.”

Behunin is fairly busy, hoping to get in a good amount of work before he heads over to the Deseret Book flagship store, in downtown Salt Lake City, to sell his various artwork at the “Lunch and Learn” series. This event allows LDS artists to come meet customers and share the stories behind their artwork. 

Behunin, 41, grew up, for the most part, in Salt Lake City. The oldest of seven children, he not only became independent, but also learned to use his creativity to make money since his parents never had much.

“My dad wasn’t rich but could teach me how to work, so I started my own lawn business when I was 10,” Behunin says.

By the time he was 12, his parents informed him that he was making more money than they were. Up to this point in time he had begun to realize that he, like many other artists, lacked a financial safety net. Whatever he chose to do in his life he knew he had to be successful enough to make a living off of it.

Knowing this simple fact has helped Behunin when it comes to running his own pottery business. The ceramic artist, who jokingly refers to himself as Chief Slave, relays something his friend once told him. “The great thing about running your own business is you get to only work half days. Pick any 12 hours you want,” he says with a laugh.

But as Behunin believes, “Being a slave to your work isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Behunin is usually in his studio by 8:30 a.m. and still works 12-hour days. “I love creation,” he says. “I love being able to take mud and turn it into something functional, something that has value.”

He believes everyone has an inherent creator inside of them. “Whatever it is we do we’re making mud pies of a sort. All of us probably start out as creative artists as kids,” he says. “When you ask kindergarteners who thinks they are an artist, 99 percent of them will raise their hands.”

Except he believes that many of us grow, or are even pushed, out of it. “But then someone tells a child that their dog looks like a monkey, or that there is no such thing as purple trees,” he says. “And then they start to think that, ‘maybe I’m not an artist.’”

But artists come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Nick Beckstead, 31, a character animator for Disney Interactive, offers another artistic voice to the belief that no matter what a person is doing in their life, they are still creating art.

In a phone interview Beckstead said, “My personal belief in life is that everyone is meant to be a creator. I have friends who are programmers and though they wouldn’t say it, they are creating art.” Beckstead pauses, “It doesn’t have to be traditional art to be art.”

Beckstead adds another thought onto his idea. “There is so much you can do with art,” he says. “I personally believe work ethic exceeds talent. Anyone can be a good artist and make a living off of it.”

Behunin would agree. “Too many people buy into the idea that ‘it’s good enough,’” he says.

“I feel like art is one of the most important subjects,” he says. “It enhances science and math. I mean, you have to be creative to design new things. And art is what opens your mind to the possibilities.” Behunin continues, “Imagination asks questions while knowledge feels like it has all the answers.”

As Behunin speaks an idea begins to emerge. “Artists create beautiful things that give hope,” he says. “They create philosophies and ideas that challenge the status quo.”

But challenging the status quo — having society progress — is only half of the answer to the question: why is art so important?

“The hope of joy,” Behunin says. “They are buying my story as much as they are buying my art.” He pauses, “They are taking home a piece of ‘follow your own dreams.’”

Because when Behunin creates art he wants to create something that will make people feel happy.

“My goal at any art festival is that people see something they like and that they can afford,” Behunin says. “Because I would rather make 1,000 people happy than just one person happy.”

Happiness is something people seek. Something that people need. Behunin points to the “gear heads” hanging on his wooden fence outside his home studio. The ceramic faces are molded together with gears from cars. “I used to make happy and sad gear head faces. But people only bought the happy ones, so I stopped making the sad ones,” he says.

Whether it’s at art festivals, his studio, or at small events like Deseret Book, people continue to buy his art, a lot. So does that make Behunin a successful artist? Well, yes and no, because Behunin defines success differently than most. “I feel like I’m rich because I have no wants and am happy every day I go to work,” he says. “I feel like I’m contributing joy to the world.”

Linda Howard, the art concierge at Deseret Book, talks about her views on art as she helps Behunin place his bowls, plates and books on the table they have set up for him, organizing them neatly for potential customers to view.

Howard used to teach art for elementary teachers at Brigham Young University and as such has strong views as to why art is so important as an educator. She echoes a thought Behunin has also had before. “Art is just as important as science and math,” she says. “The world would be a dreary, terrible place if we didn’t have art to uplift and inspire.”

As she walks around showing off the diversity of the various paintings in the store she offers a fitting final thought. “Art is not the frosting on the cake,” she says. “It is the cake. You need art to connect with life.”

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