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SALT LAKE CITY — For potter Ben Behunin, it was always about finding a way to make a living out of his whimsical creations.
When he received an opportunity to apprentice in Germany, he took it. When he realized he wanted to build a business, he moved away from Hawaii where he was studying to Utah where he could focus on his business. When he didn’t get paid by galleries and shops for his work, he kept trying. When he realized he needed to work on his own, he built a studio behind his house. And when he got arthritis, he turned to writing and hand sculpting to relieve his hands from strenuous wheel work.
Behunin, a Salt Lake resident who continues to churn out between seven and eight tons of whimsical clay pottery each year, has had quite the journey to where he is at these days. Nowadays he works from the studio he built behind his home, selling pottery directly to people, as well as through the Deseret Book Flagship Store in downtown SLC, the LDS Church Museum of Art gift shop on West Temple, Utah Artists Hands in SLC, Datura Gallery in Kayenta, Canyon Offerings in Springdale, and American Crafts by Robbie Dein in Ithaca, New York. But he realized he wanted to become a potter after taking a high school class on the subject.
“I started playing with clay as a freshman at Highland High School when I needed an art credit and thought pottery might be an ‘easy A,’” he said. “It proved to be neither easy, nor an A. But I was hooked. It got under my skin, or at least my fingernails, and I loved the challenge of it. I studied it through high school, often going in after school and even on Saturdays and won a scholarship to Ricks College which I attended in the fall of 1992.”
Behunin paused his education to go on a mission to Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But even his mission acted as a stepping stone to making his dream of becoming a professional potter become a reality.
“While in Germany, I met a German potter, Irene Adeler, whom I later baptized in December of 1993,” Behunin said. “A year later, I received a Christmas gift in the mail from Irene—a book about a famous English potter. As I flipped through the book, I began pulling out colorful bills. She had sent me 1500 Deutsch Marks, roughly a thousand dollars, along with a note that said, ‘Here’s your ticket to come back and work for me when your mission is over.’ I finished my mission in January 1995, and after returning home, too late for school, I realized the window of opportunity to return to Germany and apprentice with Irene was very small. I went back in early February, intending to stay for two months, but ended up staying for just over four months.”
When he returned to the states, he attended Brigham Young University—Hawaii for two semesters, continuing his artwork. But knowing he needed to turn it into a business and feeling the push to do so while his girlfriend was serving her own mission in Spain, he moved back to Utah to study at the University of Utah. While there, an opportunity unfolded.
“A neighbor who had been in my parents’ home and seen my pottery while I was in Hawaii said he would like to meet me when I returned,” Behunin said. “I visited him a couple of days after my return, and he showed me to his backyard, to his defunct pottery studio and told me he would like nothing more than to see pottery being made in the space. He had aspired to a career in pottery himself when he was younger, but had given up on the idea years before. He told me that if I would agree to pay the gas and electric bill, he would be happy to have me come and use his space for as long as I wanted. I jumped at the idea, buying clay that afternoon and beginning work the very next day.”
He married his wife, Lynnette, after she returned home in 1997. And after a series of bad checks from gift shops and galleries, he partnered with a friend to open Sugar Post Pottery, teaching classes and selling in their own showroom. But he quickly learned he needed his own space and broke ground on his backyard studio and in 2001, completed the space and moved his work there. Around that time, he began selling art through the Buyer’s Market of American Craft in Philadelphia and filling orders from galleries across the country. He also sold his pottery at the Salt Lake Downtown Farmer’s Market 20 Saturdays a year, going through about 10 tons of clay a year.
In 2003, he was diagnosed with arthritis in his hands—a blow to anyone, but especially a potter. He found a way to turn that into something positive and continue his dream career, though.
“Arthritis is bummer for anyone, but for a young potter with a young family and a mortgage, it was brutal. I switched gears and began spending more time hand-building, making tiles and platters that did not require the wheel which had really exacerbated the problems,” he said. “That worked for a little while, but for seven years, the arthritis crippled me. Meanwhile, I had been thinking for years that I needed to be writing. With my hands in trouble, I tried to spend more time writing to give my hands a break.”
In 2009, Behunin published “Remembering Isaac, the Wise and Joyful Potter of Niederbipp,” which he based off his time in Germany. Now a trilogy and in its fifth printing, he credits the arthritis for getting him writing. But once he got his arthritis managed to the point he could get on the wheel again, he kept working. Clay, he says, is calling.
“Clay—I feel like we chose each other. I also like to paint and sculpt and write, but clay has long been my first love,” he said. “I love taking something that has no intrinsic value and turning it into something with beauty and function. ...Clay requires patience. From start to finish, most of my projects take a minimum of 10 days, but usually more. Once the piece is made, it requires a few days to dry, then comes the bisque fire, glazing and the high fire to 2,400 degrees. Each piece has my fingerprints on it and moves through my hands at least a dozen times before it’s ready to be sold.”
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ben.behunin
- Instagram: Niederbippboy
- See his work in person: Home studio sale at 1150 E. 800 South: December 3, 10, 17, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (Private visits to the showroom available by calling 801-883-0146)
- “If the Shoe Fits and Other Wild Hairs” at the Loge Gallery at Pioneer Theater: Dec 2–January 1
- Deseret Book Flagship Store Downtown SLC
- The LDS Church Museum of Art gift shop
- Utah Artists Hands on 300 South in SLC
- Datura Gallery in Kayenta
- Canyon Offerings in Springdale
To aspiring artists, he gives this piece of advice: stay out of debt and put your art out to the world.
“Make the best art you can, then make a lot of it and get out there and sell it. It doesn’t help if you’re the best artist in the world and no one sees it,” Behunin said. “Get out there and shine the best you can. Be authentically you. Never accept mediocrity and never make it. Believe in yourself and somehow the money will come. Don’t give up the dream, but be willing to work your tail off to make your dreams a reality.”