On the local front is Zachariah Ben, a Diné artist who practices sand painting, a medium in which natural materials such as sandstone, turquoise and semi-precious stone are used to create imagery of universal forces that demonstrate the interconnection of all beings. More than an art process, sand painting is a ritual performed during Navajo healing ceremonies.

Ben began learning sand painting when he was just 3 years old; his father, Joe Ben Jr., a renowned artist himself, taught him the art form. As he watched his father create images of medicine men, he realized by the time he was 5 that he, too, wanted to be one of the natural healers, or as he describes, “wizards.” He began dancing and dressing up as Diné deities, and is still learning chants and sandpainting designs for healing ceremonies as part of his medicine man training, a process that can last a lifetime.

Ben’s latest sand paintings are on view at Ellsworth Gallery and depict deities against cosmic skies formed from granular textures of sand. These grains have been carefully sprinkled onto boards by Ben, who rubs his fingers together to release natural energy into an image. “That is what art is all about,” he declares. “Nature. What else is there?”

As he collects earthen pigment to create the paintings, Ben makes an offering to heal patients—but also, he says, to “heal the art world, because the art world is tarnished by commercial paints, commercial this, commercial that. Why not go back to the natural cycle?” Natural materials, he says, have gone through billions of years of life and death. “These colors that I use today have been cooking since the birth of time,” he says, “the birth of Earth, the birth of the Universe.”

But how do these works fit into the world of contemporary art? Ben answers: “The dirt that you walk on is today. The sun that shines upon you, that is of today. That is modern. That is contemporary.'”

Ííkáh’ Dííyííníí: Sacred Sands
Opening reception:
5 pm Friday Dec. 22. Free.

Artist Demonstration with Zachariah Ben:
2-6 pm Wednesday-Friday
Dec. 27-29. Free.

Artist Q&A
Noon Thursday Dec. 28