Virgil and Shirley Benn
Tewa artist Shirley Benn has been influenced by both the Zuni & Hopi cultures. Her family is full of famous potters, yet she creates amazing pieces of channel inlay art. A book is being written about her family, one that has had a very important influence on the art of the Hopi. It is always fascinating to listen to Shirley Benn.
Virgil and Shirley Benn
1953 to Present
Shirley Benn - Pottery
1953 to Present
Zuni inlay style jewelry, Hopi style pottery
FIRST YEAR MAKING ART:
So, you grow up in Hopi?
I was born in Hopi and lived on the First Mesa, Polacca, until I was 2 years old.
You are Tewa, how is that different than Hopi?
Tewa come from the Rio Grande Valley, today’s Santa Clara and Santa Ana areas.
Why did they come to Hopi?
Two different stories. The Hopi say it is because the Tewa were starving and came to Hopi to survive. My people came to Hopi because two people came to our Pueblo for help. The Hopi were being raided by the Navajo and Apache and were going to be wiped out. We came to help save Hopi from the raiders.
So Tewa still live in Hopi, do they have their own reservation?
The Tewa still live on First Mesa, it is separated from the Hopi villages on the 1st Mesa. We do not have our own Reservation but we do have our own council.
Do the Hopi & Tewa get along?
Yes, the only time they have arguments are at council meetings.
Your grandmother is Annie Nampeyo, the daughter of the famous potter Nampeyo?
Yes, my great-grandmother is Nampeyo. She is credited with saving Hopi pottery and has been written about many times.
You are known for you jewelry, do you make pottery?
Yes, I really enjoy making pottery, maybe more than jewelry. We spend time in both Zuni & Hopi. Hopi is where I make our pottery because we are surrounded by houses in Zuni and the smell of the manure is not appreciated by our neighbors. Zuni has built up, before no one was around our house.
Pottery is very labor intensive and I still burn my pottery like I was taught, not in a kiln. I build up a pit and fill it with wood chips, once that is burning I put sheep manure on it for a hot and long burning fuel. Then I use rocks and a screen that I put pottery shards on to set my new pots on for firing. After that I cover the new pots with more pottery shards and then put more manure on that. It looks like a traditional bread oven after I am done with that big dome.
Besides, Nampeyo, who else is a famous relative?
Joy Naha Navasie, Frog Woman, is my Aunt. She is still living. Raymond Naha who is my oldest brother is a very well known artist. He made me some drawings that I used for our first inlay designs, he always like to do Hopi clowns.
So, you are living on the First Mesa until 2, where do you go?
My mother, Daisy Hooee marries a man (Leo Poblano) from Zuni, so we move to Zuni.
Do you grow up in Zuni?
I spend time between both Zuni and Hopi. I would live with my Grandma, Annie Nampeyo, when I was in Hopi. My school was in Zuni, Keams Canyon, and would finish at the Indian School in Albuquerque.
Did you have a typical childhood?
Yes, I left school in the 11th grade and didn’t finish because my mother was alone in Zuni and I went to stay with her.
You are known for your jewelry, when did you start making it?
When I came back to stay with my mother I started making needlepoint jewelry, little crosses. Tie tacs became very popular and that is when I started to learn how to do inlay work.
How about the beautiful channel inlay pieces you are known for?
In the 1950s I made my first large piece, a Hoop Dancer. I was embarrassed to take it to Vanderwagen to sell so my in-law did, Rita Pinto. Vanderwagen asked for more.
Do you remember how much you got for the dancer?
$13, it would be a lot more today.
Those early pieces, are they signed?
No, it seemed like no one signed their work then, not until later would I sign my pieces.
Do you have children and did you teach them how to do the inlay art?
From my first marriage I have four children living. Marlin Pinto who is well-known for Koshari carvings. Cheryl Naha who is a potter and does a different style of carving. Randy Pinto who does channel inlay work. Bryceson Pinto who did some painting and jewelry making, but has a computer job with the schools.
Have you taught anyone else?
Bryceson was married to Andrea Shirley and I showed her how to make certain styles. When they split she started to do pieces like ours.
Is that upsetting?
Maybe at first, but not now. It is so hard for young artists to get into this business because of how much things cost now. Plus, you can not take this art with you, everything stays here.
Where do you spend most of your time, Hopi or Zuni?
Zuni, it is always easier to finish your work there and then have somewhere to sell it