By Stephanie Beard, Communications Coordinator
The curator behind Pepperwood’s Gallery is a man named Ben Benson. Archaeologist, cultural anthropologist, professor, artist, adventurer, exhibit designer, master electrician – these are a handful of Ben’s accomplishments, but they by no means capture the essence of the man. For that, one needs to have a conversation with him. His enthusiasm for art and the natural world, his optimism for humanity, his expertise in Indigenous arts and traditions, and his passion for connecting people with, in his words, the majesty of Nature is enlivening. I’ve had the pleasure and good fortune of sharing many conversations with Ben over the years, and each time I come away feeling inspired.
Ben has been engaged with Pepperwood for over fifteen years, having discovered the reserve through our relationship with the Santa Rosa Junior College where he served as a faculty member and founder of the Multicultural Museum. Ben´s presence at Pepperwood predates our founding director and most of the current Pepperwood team. When he was first spending time on site his role was rather… nebulous. But the openness of his role – to essentially explore whatever facets of the land captured his imagination – empowered him to help shape Pepperwood’s art initiatives from the inside out.
Ben identifies as part Native American and part Jewish, and he grew up with a very clear sense of Native American culture. He saw in California Indigenous culture an incredible stability and integration with nature, so much so that those cultures could have endured in perpetuity in balance with their habitat. Much of his career as a cultural anthropologist, archaeologist, and professor, has focused on how Native Americans achieved harmony with the ecology of California. Therefore, his first order of business at Pepperwood was to create space for Native American perspectives and philosophy. He invited several Indigenous community members, with whom he had long term relationships, to the reserve to open a dialogue with Pepperwood´s team. In time, some did, and together they subsequently formed the Native Advisory Council at Pepperwood. Since then, the Council has grown and evolved and is revitalizing Native American culture and connection to place here at Pepperwood.
Without Ben, there wouldn’t be a gallery at the Dwight Center for Conservation Science. Ben began the Gallery by coordinating Native American basketry exhibits in concert with the Council. “It was here that I noticed how what we perceive as art – this beautiful basketry, which is in fact so much more than just artistry – reflects an environmental philosophy of connection and reciprocity,” he tells me. What sprang up from those first exhibits at Pepperwood was a persistent personal mission to connect Pepperwood’s community to nature through art.
With Ben’s leadership, Pepperwood’s Gallery has expanded its mission to also feature the contemporary arts. Not only are there seasonal exhibits in the Gallery, there are now environmental art installations throughout the reserve with many more planned for installation. I had a feeling Ben was a force behind the expansion of our Gallery programming. He laughed when I framed it this way in my interview with him – though I noticed he didn’t refute it. “I can be tenacious!” he says modestly. His tenacity, and partnership with our new Arts Committee chaired by Education Director, Margaret Boeger, has paid off. Realizing this vision has taken a decade of dedication and patience to integrate art throughout the reserve and into our strategic plan.
I asked Ben how this had unfolded. After all, Pepperwood is a science-based institution with hard-core research happening throughout the reserve. Ben has complete faith in Pepperwood’s scientists and stewardship practitioners to guide on those fronts, but as a cultural anthropologist, his guidance comes from a different place. “The issue that we in the environmental community face is that knowledge of what’s happening to the world around us through climate change is not enough. Knowledge of our impact on the environment is not enough. We need culture change.”
For the last two hundred plus years, America’s economy has been founded to a large degree on consumption and exploitation of our natural resources. With new communication technologies, we have further strained our cultural connection with the natural world. Now we’re facing some extraordinary environmental challenges – many of which are exacerbated by our own actions. To Ben, yes, solutions involve science. But they will also require cultural evolution. But, how do we evoke this sort of change? Ben’s theory involves one of the fundamental features of a culture, “art is one of the ways we can stimulate awareness, that we can open people’s hearts to the majesty of Nature. Art provides visitors with a way to connect to Nature and to understand the importance of science.”
From his earliest days at Pepperwood, Ben has facilitated connections to nature through art and predominantly Native American philosophy. The way he sees it, we will be able to meet our environmental challenges only when we begin to see nature as truly sacred. His hope, through his work at Pepperwood, is to tap into our deepest feelings as Americans and to build a felt sense of that sacred value in order to transform our relationship to the natural world. He sees art as a window, a stimulator, a bridge. It can be evocative. It can open people’s hearts and minds to the nature that surrounds them, and the nature they are.
Ben fundamentally believes that regardless of who we are, we all share a foundational relationship with nature – a profound awareness of the natural world around us that simply needs to be revived. He does not expect to get there overnight. Cultural evolution takes time. Generations of time have led us to where we are now, and it will take generations more to evolve our culture and restore a deeply held value of environmental reciprocity. Pepperwood is using art to create a space for people to begin to shape their own feelings and their own awareness of the natural world based on experiences in nature that they can also share with their family.
Pepperwood is perfectly positioned to facilitate this change because of this intersection of art, science, and nature fostered by Ben’s leadership. “There’s no barrier between what science shows us objectively and what our hearts can feel subjectively.” Ben says, we’re going to do that at Pepperwood with art – we’re going to create experiences not only to know Nature, but to feel it.”