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“Medicine Plants Dreaming of Rain”

Zach Ben


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Zach Ben is the son, nephew, and grandson of Navajo medicine men. Like his father, internationally famed, contemporary sand painter Joe Ben Jr., Zach prefers to create sand paintings that use traditional materials, plus some new ones, and to interpret Navajo culture, rather than replicate traditional, ceremonial designs.


This visually delightful piece features four Yei figures, whose bodies are actually plants. These Navajo spirits are supposed to represent the four sacred plants and the four seasons, as well as males and females. The artist has given them each the same plant, albeit in a variety of colors, and they are all female, as seen in the squared heads. This departure from the ceremonial protects the painter from retribution for using sacred symbols for non-ceremonial purposes.


The non-traditional, creative, and masterful use of the hand-pulverized materials has created a haunting, other-worldly ambience to the painting. Insubstantial specks of color swirl and float around each of the plant figures, giving them a truly spirit-like allure, against the black background. Tiny stars and planet-like dots are seen in this blackness; the Yei plants hover as if in space.


On the left, behind the gold and brown plant, a spiral of water is seen. Just below that, a rainbow arc, with sinuous vertical lines of grey and blue, refers to rainfall. “No rain, no rainbow”! That quarter-circle also brings the eye right back into the composition, and offers a welcome change from the line-up of similar leaf forms.


All the colors are natural, hand-ground rocks: white is gypsum; turquoise is turquoise, russet is red sandstone, black is jet, and the various cream, browns and greys, are hand-mixed combinations of these. There might also be a touch of ground-up lapis, in the rainfall. Every element of the design is filtered through the artist’s fingers and hand. The title is written on the back, by the artist.


The design follows the Navajo ideal of symmetry and balance, with delicacy, verve and lovely variety. An invocation of the desert farmer’s prayer for water, this beautiful and gently dramatic sand painting also represents good luck. Bring beauty and good luck into your home; it is all ready to hang.