Robert Benson, installation view of “Tintah: Amongst the Trails,” 2023. Photo: Gabrielle Gopinath

Robert Benson

Arcata, California

Goudi’ni Native American Arts Gallery

“Tintah: Amongst the Trails,” the title of Robert Benson’s current solo exhibition (on view through December 2, 2023), is a fine appellation for a show that reinvents the gallery as a grove. The space is populated with tall sculptural carvings hewn from single slabs of wood; viewers pick their way among the uprights, as if they were moving along a trail through a forest. Also, metonymically enough, some sculptures mimic trail segments. Standing before them, it’s as though the trail has risen to meet you. Benson carves vertical expanses of wood into overlapping plates or interlocking facets. A redwood plank gets shaped into a sidewinding series of faceted beads. The Trail Up, carved from a single old-growth redwood slab, undulates not only side to side, but also toward and away from the viewer, its rhythms syncopating, like the measured tread of feet heard against the double-time patter of a dog’s four paws.

Tintah is the word for “trail” in the Hupa and Tsnungwe languages that Benson’s great-grandmother spoke during his childhood. The family lived in far northwest California, along the South Fork of the Trinity River—a place to which he still returns. Today, the community of Willow Creek occupies the site of the village called le:l-ding in the Tsnungwe language. Steep, densely forested hills rise from the river’s stony bed, the ridges sectioned by fast-moving creeks, so that in traveling across country by foot one is either gaining or losing altitude: trails seem always to be rearing up or tumbling away. Benson’s carved sculptures respond to this characteristic, improvising over the rhythms perceived by anyone who walks in these hills.

Before a trail can be anything else, it is the indexical trace left by the passage of bodies, as Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967) showed. Trails relate intimately to their underlying topographies, especially in hilly or mountainous country. Whether traced by humans, wild animals, or livestock, they tend to stick to places where the land puts up minimal resistance, repeatedly inscribing the letter S as they rise and descend. Benson’s approach to found timbers that have been preshaped by natural forces is consonant with the way that trails get inscribed, step by step, into the land. Address to materials is guided by a perception of latent form.

Sometimes the discovered forms are vigorous and rude. In Little Rumble and Roar, for instance, deep fissures split the lower section into two leg-like stubs, with the trace of a bole still visible, like a pentimento, in a pocket-shaped protuberance up top. Other carvings can be elegant and sinuous, like Tet klew neus, where Benson used tools to follow a trail already intimated in the clockwise spiral within the redwood grain. Here, repeated brushes with the adze produced a taut, satiny surface with a snakeskin luster. White paint applied in fine hatching envelops some sculptural passages in a grisaille sheen. Big Rumble and Roar, one of the first works in this series, is carved from a tree trunk that Benson found and subsequently left in the Trinity River for a season. Returning to the river about a year after first dragging the timber to its banks, he found it substantially altered by spring snowmelt—a piece of scrap metal had embedded itself in one end, and small rocks had gotten caught in the gap between its forks. They remain in place in the completed sculpture, testament to Benson’s embrace of chance and his affinity for continuing processes initiated by natural forces.

Robert Benson, Little Steps, 2023. Madrone and oil paint. Photo: Gabrielle Gopinath

Tsnungwe lands, encompassing river flats along the Trinity, were once covered by forest containing some of the tallest trees in the world. Like other Indigenous groups in the region, the Tsnungwe did not fell large trees prior to contact with white colonizers, working instead with the abundant supply of deadfall. This meant identifying likely fallen trees in the forest and using mauls, wedges, and adzes on site to split them into planks of suitable size.

Benson has adapted this working method to his own purposes. He hikes through forested public lands to discover fallen trees that strike him as potential candidates for sculpture, limiting his selection to what he is able to lift or drag to the nearest trailhead by himself. After relocating the timbers to his studio, he may leave them to cure for months or years before taking further action. When he does approach with tools, he lets his path be shaped by pre-existing patterns in the wood, responding opportunistically to how the material has been shaped by the presence or absence of sun, wind, and water. Sculptural intervention responds to the trace or residue of choices made by individual trees, while still actively growing, to maximize resource access. This method of sourcing wood feeds what Benson describes as his “hunting and gathering side.” As he explains, “Discovering these pieces of wood, going out and finding something: that speaks to me. It’s like dancing. Rumble and Roar, from 10 years ago, had been displaced by logging, and it was so heavy. I ended up moving it in three pieces, and…I could just barely do it. It was a battle of wills. I got it down the hill in three pieces, and then I left it reassembled. And one day I got out the chainsaw and cut down each of its four sides…and found out that it was fantastic.” Benson’s approach to materials reflects the traditional Native belief that all things are imbued with spirit. Despite the fact that a tree trunk is no longer growing by the time he approaches with his chisel, “artistically, it’s alive.”

Native people have maintained trails in this part of the world for thousands of years. Groups took trails up from riverside villages to access highland oak savannas so they could harvest acorns in the fall. Messengers traveled ridgelines at speed to deliver news. Spiritual postulants, training to become medicine men and women, ascended mountain trails to meditate alone in the high country. The Trail Up and its fellow sculptures draw on this history, and on the distinctive associations that the direction “up” connotes in the Northwest California Indian world. The trail leading to the high country is associated with solitary reflection, meditation, and spiritual quest; the trail down leads home to riverbank, sweat lodge, hearth, and community. Every mountain trail contains both concepts, counterpoised in palindrome.

Benson’s creative practice reflects his experience as a person of mixed ancestry growing up as a member of the Tsnungwe tribe while also tracing family roots back to some of the earliest white colonists to enter the region. He did not have access to first-person examples of traditional beliefs and practices while young; his story is one of discontinuity and rupture, defined from early on by the experience of existing in two different worlds. The family moved from Willow Creek to the nearby city of Arcata when he was six. “Our father moved to optimize our chances for education,” Benson said. “He didn’t think the option of not going to college would work.” They continued to go back every other weekend, but connections to Native culture became distanced. Perhaps in part as a result of this displacement, his subsequent relation to traditional belief systems has been a matter of active interrogation.

Robert Benson with Danny Ammon, Denise McKinzey, Carla Rowland, and Becky Evans, Headdresses and Blue Jay Feathers, 2012. Photo: Gabrielle Gopinath

Benson started making art influenced by his Indigenous heritage some 50 years ago, learning everything he could about traditional cultural practices, including wood carving. Getting to know Brian D. Tripp, the Karuk artist who was instrumental in spearheading a revival of Indigenous culture in the region during the 1980s, convinced Benson that Indigenous worldview could be a motive power for his work. This was true even though he often felt that he had to imagine or even dream his way toward the kinds of learning he wanted to acquire. His cultural knowledge, not having been founded in home training or childhood memory, had to be painstakingly wrested back as an adult. “It’s been a circular process: the only way to make it happen is by being an artist, following perceptions intuitively. I sensed things, and I just went with those things.”

Personal involvement with the movement to restore tribal ceremonies and cultural practices has been a major influence on Benson’s sculpture since the early 2000s. Accepting a cousin’s invitation to get involved led to spending several years creating regalia, joining with other community members in building a new dance house, and helping to organize traditional ceremonies and dances. This experience of intensive involvement initiated a new period in Benson’s work, marked by a burgeoning sense of freedom and a newfound perception of unfettered access to Indigenous concepts and motifs. His subsequent sculptures and paintings manifest three-dimensional forms and graphic elements found in traditional regalia and basketry.

The paintings, especially, represent the world by highlighting its integral geometry. Compositions are shaped around geometric forms defined by strong contrast, often rendered in a limited palette of black, white, red, and ochre. Landscape views unfolding in deep space render the relation between trail and land visibly dynamic. Frontal studies of forms found in the artist’s woodpile underscore that this approach to abstraction exists in rapport with the observed world. Benson points out that in Indigenous worldviews, geometry is not conceived of as existing in opposition to nature. Many traditional, abstract graphic patterns used in basketry and regalia-making bear names derived from observations of the animal world: “snake nose” and “elk track” are two of them.

Two pieces of traditional dance regalia made by Benson are displayed alongside his paintings and sculptures. These headdresses are crafted with long lappets made from tanned buckskin and decorated with painted triangular designs. They are trimmed and crested with red-orange primary feathers from the Northern Flicker and blue ones from the Steller’s Jay. The feathers have been individually cut so that they take on the dynamic appearance of a linked chain of inverted triangles, reprising a shape writ large in sculptures like Blue Jay Feather. In providing this opportunity for comparison, “Tintah: Amongst the Trails” exposes the profundity and power of Indigenous abstraction. Traditional geometries can provide a subtle and flexible formal vocabulary for present-day creators, as this work makes clear.