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Drawing for a better life

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Artist Keefred Benally uses his past to create a better future

Twenty-eight-year-old Diné artist Keefred Benally is not your typical artist, he wasn’t influenced at a young age, nor was art in his blood. Benally found art at the worst time of his life — when he was locked up in jail.

Hailing from Dilkon, Ariz., Benally had a rough upbringing and alcohol, drugs, and violence was all around him. He succumbed to it and the dangers that accompany it that would haunt him later in life.

His first stint with the law was in 2011 when he landed behind bars in Navajo County Jail in Holbrook, Ariz., at the age of nineteen. It was there that he was introduced to a form of artwork known as “Prison Art” by his older brother Tito Benally, who was also in jail on other charges.

Benally never knew his older brother could draw. He was also intrigued to learn that there was payment for the drawings, payment in the form of commissary items such as soups, candy, and other sweets purchased in jail.

His older brother explained that he did drawings for other inmates and suggested Keefred try drawing, too.

“I never had any ideas, or anything related to drawing, but when I saw what my brother was doing, I wanted to try, since I had the time (laughing), lots of time,” Benally said. “My brother told me to try it and at first I couldn’t, but then I begin to practice and practice.”

With time on his hands, Benally started to develop his own technique.

Benally began to use his drawing as an exercise to overcome his addiction to methamphetamines and heroin.

He says it’s a daily process and takes it one day at a time. However, those days are adding up. He’s been clean and sober since April 15.

He says there were many times he chose drugs over family and other important things in his life. It took more jail and prison time before Benally felt that art set him free.

“I sometimes don’t really like to talk about my past nor think about it, but it is what it is,” he said. “Having gone through what I have was rough and my thinking back then will stay — back there.”

He served a five-year sentence. That was followed by a charge of aggravated assault and property damage which landed him in prison for 2 and half years. He was released from Arizona State Prison in November 2019.

Now, Benally said he is hooked on art.

He mainly uses pens, pencils, and colored pencils and prefers drawing along the lines of Realism, such as landscapes and other realistic forms.

Lately, he has been working with pastels, charcoal, and different types of paints to broaden his work.

He keeps telling himself that his art could be better, even when he started selling his artwork, he couldn’t grasp those feelings from those who bought them.

“When people bought my art, to me I look at it and I don’t see much, but when other people look at and express their feelings, that inspired me more and motivated me,” he said. “I thought they weren’t that good, but when the customers were telling me they were, I was shocked, but happy.”

Benally is currently working on a project at Healing Hands Studio (194 East Hwy. 66) in Gallup. Benally’s wife introduced him to the studio and got him connected.

Healing Hands Studio is an enterprise of Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services. The home studio is located within the Wellspring Recovery treatment center where residents and graduates produce finished pottery and other creations while working in a vocational back-to-work program.

“I came to the studio and noticed the inside was bare and needed some color, so I volunteered my services to make it brighter inside,” Benally said.

He’s been working on the project for the past two weeks and hopes to have it ready for display by July 4.

When asked if his art is just a passing phase or perhaps a career is in the works, Benally says he’s been thinking about that. But he says he doesn’t want to think too far ahead and prefers to simply concentrate on the present day.

“At the end of the day I want to know that I am good, and if I keep going [a] little more and more, I want to do something great,” Benally continued. “As for a career, I look forward to that, it’s still new to me and I have to believe in myself and find myself worthy of that.”

By Dee Velasco
For the Sun