The University of Arizona

Interview with Herbert Ben, Sandpainter

ASM - Southwest Culture

ASM Podcasts - Episode 29 - (5:04)

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Interview conducted by Lisa Falk (ASM Director of Education) at the 2008 Southwest Indian Art Fair. Filmed and edited by Erich Healy.


Lisa Falk: I'm Lisa Falk. I’m Director of Education at the Arizona State Museum. I’m at the Southeast Indian Art Fair (the 14th annual in 2008) and I'm here with Herbert Ben, who is from Shiprock, New Mexico. He is from the Navajo Nation and he is a sandpainter and I'm going to ask him a few questions about the tradition that he does and the sandpainting that he is making here at the fair today. How are you, Herbert?
Herbert Ben: I’m OK.
Lisa: So, can you tell me how you learned to do sandpainting?
Herbert: I learned from my grandparents, when I was about 12 years old.
Lisa: So, how did you learn, did you watch, or did you do it, or did they guide your hand?
Herbert: First I watched and then later on, I started helping to do the ceremonies and the ceremonial things. I would help them and that is where I started doing it on the boards.
Lisa: And what is your grandfather's name?
Herbert: Joe.
Lisa: Herbert? Joe Herbert?
Herbert: Yes.
Lisa: So he did it for medicine ceremonies. The stuff that you do though on the boards how does that differ from the ones that are done for ceremonies?
Herbert: For the ceremonies, a sick person has to sit on the sandpainting after it is done. Then they sing over the person and they say a prayer over the person to get well. The person on the sandpainting.
Lisa: And when you do the ones that you do for demonstration purpose or the beautiful ones that you do to sell, how do those differ from the ones that are done for ceremonies?
Herbert: There is a certain way that you are supposed do it there at the ceremonies. But when I do it as an art, I leave some parts out from the way it’s supposed to be done for ceremonies.
Lisa: So, it might be a different color?
Herbert: A different color and some parts are not all there. I leave some parts out.
Lisa: And where do you get the colored sand? What is it?
Herbert: It's ground up sandstone. Then I grind it and then I sift it through from fine to coarse.
Lisa: And how does it get all those different colors in it?
Herbert: There are all different colors of sandstone. I have to look for it all over the reservation.
Lisa: And when you are doing one of the ones that you make for sale, how long does it take you to do, say a 10 x 10 piece?
Herbert: To do a 12 x 12, it would take me about four or five days.
Lisa: And what are the different designs you are using and what are you drawing on for your inspiration?
Herbert: I’m making the Corn Dancers: this here is a cornstalk, and these are the planters, and he’s carrying a seed in the back of him.
Lisa: And is that a fox there?
Herbert: Yes, they are a fox they use to dance with.
Lisa: Well, anything else you would like to tell people about sand painting?
Herbert: This one, right here, is a Rainbow for good luck. And there are a lot of different kind of sandpaintings, maybe over a 100 different kind of paintings that can be used during the ceremonies. There are a whole bunch of them. When they’re are going to do it during a ceremony, we do about 10 x 10—10 feet by 10 feet. They need six or seven helpers doing a sandpainting.
Lisa: How many people in your family are sandpainters, your extended family?
Herbert: A lot of them.
Lisa: A lot?
Herbert: All of them, yes.
Lisa: All of them?
Herbert: Yes. There are about maybe 15 of us.
Lisa: Are they all men?
Herbert: Some ladies.
Lisa: Traditionally, are the ones that are doing them for ceremony, are they all men or are there also women doing it for ceremony?
Herbert: No, a woman can do it too, and men. Whoever wants to help and whoever knows how to do it.
Lisa: Interesting. Well, thank you very much.
Herbert: You're welcome.
Lisa: And thanks for being here at the fair too.

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