Medicine man and traditional sand painter Wallace Ben is a practitioner of the Navajo Ho’zho’ ideology, the concept of balance and beauty. Difficult to directly translate into English, it’s a consideration of the nature of the universe, the world, man, the nature of time and space, creation, growth, motion, order, control, and the life cycle. In a word, that’s what the 65-year-old has been bringing to his hand sand drawings for over 50 years.
Figures in sand paintings are symbolic representations of a story in Navajo mythology and Ben has spent a lifetime trying to accurately portray the original messages because use of incorrect colors or pictorial inaccuracies could blaspheme and anger the spirits involved. Sand paintings are just one rite in the healing ceremony where Earth People and Holy People come into harmony. According to Navajo belief, a sandpainting heals because the ritual image attracts and exalts the Holy People, serving as a pathway for the mutual exchange of illness and the healing power of the Holy ones.
How did you get started in this art form?
I am the son and grandson of medicine men and as a toddler I used to accompany them to collect stones to be ground up for the five traditional colors: terra cotta (red sandstone); white (gypsum); black (coal); gold (ocher) and turquoise. Some colors cannot be mixed or altered in any way and the medicine man is the one who knows what color goes where and what symbols have specific meanings.
Wallace Ben's sand painting will be composed with the colored grains in the tubs beside him. Photo by Lee Allen/AZ Freelance.
What is the symbolism behind a sand painting?
It’s far more than mere artwork. Its spiritual symbolism and the different cups of colored sand are used for healing purposes. Each ceremonial painting is different depending on the type of sickness a person has and both the painting and the ceremony relate to that specific healing requirement.
How do the sand painting and the healing process work together?
When a sandpainting is completed, herbs are applied to the patient and blessings given as the patient sits on the painting and the chants enhance the absorption of its healing power. Then the remains of the painting are taken outside and returned to the earth.
Working with tiny grains of sand reuiresthe skills of a surgeon. How do you achieve the detil required?
In a journey, you pray to Holy Spirit to lead you in the right direction and I’ve been blessed with the talent to do this work. The Holy Spirit gives me a steady hand.
Under Wallace Ben's steady hand, a sand painting takes shape. Photo by Alanah Tupponce, courtesy Arizona State Museum