Legacy of artist and teacher Don Bendel celebrated in upcoming exhibit at Coconino Center for the Arts

“When a teacher is as unique and as valuable to people as Don Bendel, this is the kind of show we should have, and before people leave the earth,” said Paula Rice, co-curator of the upcoming exhibit at the Coconino Center for the Arts, Legacy: Don Bendel.

Bendel received the first Viola Award for Lifetime Contributions to the Arts in 2009, fitting for an artist who couldn’t seem to stop creating art throughout the five decades he was active. In preparation for the exhibit, Rice and co-curator Emily Lawhead sorted through hundreds of pieces at his home, his daughters’ homes and many other people reached out to them to offer pieces they owned to be included in the exhibit.

“We’re working kind of in a different way than I usually would put together a show because his work is so scattered,” said Lawhead. “It’s just haphazardly coming together; it’s in a very Bendel-esque way. As soon as it feels like things are really disorganized, we’re like, ‘This is the way he would have done this show, so this is how it’s gonna be.’”

“It’s organic,” Rice added. “We’re just playing it by ear, which is the way things really happen.”

Legacy: Don Bendel opens in the main gallery of the Coconino Center for the Arts, 2300 N. Fort Valley Road, with a reception on Friday, June 22, from 6-8 p.m. where the artist will be present. The exhibit will remain on display through Aug. 25 and entry is free during regular hours, Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Bendel’s artistic influence reached all the way around the globe and many of his students fondly remember classes with him.

“I went to NAU to be a Spanish major and I had already done a little pottery and I took one class of Bendel’s and it was magic,” said Joni Pevarnik, who studied with him in the late 1970s and currently manages The Artists’ Gallery downtown. “He changed my life and that’s the truth.”

When Bendel began teaching at NAU in 1970, there was no ceramics program. By the time he retired in 2000, it had grown into an international endeavor through a partnership with Japanese ceramicist Yukio Yamamoto with whom he collaborated in 1984 to build, at the time, the only Tozan kilns found outside of Japan.

Tozan kilns are a variation of the Japanese hill-climbing wood-fired kilns built with an additional chamber which allows for the firing of additional pieces of pottery and are useful when making larger ceramics works. The large structures are housed outside in the ceramics complex and consume, on average, 15 cords of wood with each firing. Bendel, along with then-NAU President Eugene Hughes and art gallery director Dr. Joel Eide, established an endowment to maintain the kilns over time and ensure students could continue to learn traditional firing techniques.

“Because of what he started, NAU has one of the best, if not the best, undergraduate ceramics programs in the United States,” Rice said.

Rice was hired by Bendel to teach ceramics in 1987 and recalled how he encouraged students to try new things within their art.

“He loosened everybody up, he laughed and did silly things. A lot of time the silly things worked, but if they didn’t work, so what?” Rice said. “You just throw wet clay back into the barrel and you make another piece.”

“The most amazing thing about Bendel is he makes things look simple and they aren’t,” Pevarnik said. “And the way he decorates is so pristine, and it looks crude but it isn’t.”

Bendel experimented with many different techniques and went through several stylistic phases, although he preferred to throw clay with minimal water in order to shape it as thinly as possible. While they may look heavy, his larger pots are actually very light and many of his pieces do double duty as horns.

His daughters, Mara Anderson and Sara Ryan, recall growing up surrounded by his many works, traveling to art shows around the country with pots in tow.

“I remember he never had jeans on that weren’t all full of clay, or his shoes,” said Ryan.

While neither they nor their brother Jon followed in their father’s clay-covered footprints, Ryan contributed some playful touches when she was younger with drawings of palm trees and other figures on a large ceramic tree which stands taller than Bendel.

“He has a lot of humor in a lot of his pieces,” Rice said. “He did one piece which is a big fat slab of clay with a tire track pressed in it from his van and he fired it and put it on his wall, and it’s called ‘The Van Makes Art.’”

Bendel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010, but his sense of humor remains strong. Last Wednesday afternoon, as the curators were sorting through a small fraction of what would make up the entire show, he was in awe of all he had accomplished and played around as he hid behind some of his larger creations.

“I can’t believe I made all this stuff,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Some of his more unique projects which will be in the exhibit include memorial pots and plates made with cremated remains, several chess boards in which nose figures are used for the game pieces and a series of hubcaps featuring intricate images of animals and constellations.

“I think it’s awesome that he’s going to get to see his friends and all his stuff,” Ryan said of the exhibit opening.

“I think he’s going to be a little overwhelmed, but I think he’ll like it,” Anderson added.

In order to demonstrate the scope of his impact, there will also be a section of the exhibit dedicated to works made by some of his former students as well as several pieces by Yamamoto.

“He gave everybody permission to be who they are, and that makes a huge difference in the world,” Rice said.