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Sandpainter’s work ends up as gift to first lady


Diné sandpainter Zachariah Ben’s work will be mounted on a wall in the White House.

Courtesy photo
This sand painting by Zachariah Ben was presented to first lady Jill Biden during her visit to the Navajo Nation last week.

Ben had just finished doing an art show in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he posted on his Instagram a picture of a sandpainting creation he had done.

The picture prompted a staffer from President Jonathan Nez’s office to get ahold of him and asked that the piece be gifted to first lady Dr. Jill Biden when she visited the Navajo Nation.

“They wanted something authentic, something that truly represents the Navajo culture,” Ben said. “They wanted to purchase the painting and from there they would gift it to the first lady of the United States.

“It was an honor,” Ben said. “I stick to the core of Navajo culture and I take care of my paintings in that way. I was able to share that with the first lady of the United States in that moment.”

Ben is originally from Shiprock and learned his craft of sand \painting through his dad, Joe Ben.

What is significant about Ben’s artistry is that he uses natural pigments, and that is evident in the Biden gift.

“I am a farmer and an artist,” said Ben. “I learned the art of sandpainting from my father. The cultural description and expressions come from the Navajo culture.

“As a young Navajo painter,” he said, “I use all natural pigments. None of pigments are commercially dyed, commercially altered in anyway.”

Ben doesn’t purchase his supplies from an art supply store but rather locates the natural pigments in various locations and areas. Gathering the natural pigment is a practice and process that is also used during ceremonies that require sandpaintings as well, he said.

“I use these sandpaintings as a cultural repository,” said Ben. “Using natural pigments so that way they are intact for the next generation to come and learn, to see that knowledge, to that story telling, and expressions.”

His process of creating holds deep and powerful meaning and as an artist he said he uses that platform to teach understanding of nature’s aesthetics.

Biden came to the Navajo Nation for a two-day tour, beginning at the Peterson Zah Museum and Library, where she met with Navajo women who discussed issues and topics pertaining to Navajo. This is also where gifts were bestowed upon Biden, including Ben’s sandpainting.

“I did hear she ‘absolutely loved it,’” said Ben. “I was getting little play-by-plays and after I heard she loved it, that’s where all my emotions went. I was speechless for a moment.”

In the speech Biden made at the Veteran’s Park and Memorial, Biden touched on topics such as the past visits she’s made, applauding Navajo for its vaccination efforts, and she made mention of a Navajo wedding basket (ts’aa’) she saw.

“I looked at it, the break in the circle caught my eye and I wondered what that space meant when I looked it up,” said Biden. “I learned that there are different interpretations, but it’s often seen to represent the Diné emergence into this world and the path of life.

“And I read that this open circle represented a broader concept that the world was created in perfect beauty and harmony,” she said. “Hozhó.

“While perfection is static, life is not,” she said. “As the world changes around us and chaos disrupts, we must have a path forward, a way to rediscover and recreate the harmony we need.”

Ben said after hearing Biden’s speech he was appreciative of the amount of knowledge and familiarity she had of the region and people.

“After I heard her speech I knew she would appreciate the painting that much more,” said Ben. “I was really excited.”

About The Author

Arlyssa Becenti

Arlyssa Becenti reports on Navajo Nation Council and Office of the President and Vice President. Her clans are Nát'oh dine'é Táchii'nii, Bit'ahnii, Kin łichii'nii, Kiyaa'áanii. She’s originally from Fort Defiance and has a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. Before working for the Navajo Times she was a reporter for the Gallup Independent. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @abecenti


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