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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 11, 2003 - Issue 78


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Harrison Begay


Photo: Harrison Begay ©2001, Gary Auerbach
Artwork: all by Harrison Begay

1 - Navajo Horse Race (1936)

3 - Dancing Woman

2 - Dancing Man

4 - Grandmother & Granddaughter on Horseback (1980)
Harrison BegayHarrison Begay is a Navajo artist who was born in 1917 at White Cone, near Keams Canyon, Arizona. This area is high desert, a fairly flat, open, and barren land. He was raised in a traditional way, residing in a hogan. His family herded sheep and goats for a living. At Keams Canyon, north of his home, there was a famous trading post where his family probably traveled to trade wool for foodstuffs and manufactured goods. However, most of what the family needed they found or raised on their own land. A trip to the trading post was a long journey by horse and wagon.

Begay's family spoke only Navajo. Early in this century the U.S. government felt it was important for Navajo children to learn English and the "civilized" ways of the European Americans. In 1887 Congress had passed the Compulsory Indian Education Law and built boarding schools across the country, including on the Navajo reservation. Children were picked up from their homes and taken by government agents to the schools, where speaking Navajo was not allowed. The youths were given American-style clothing and lived in dormitories under very harsh conditions. For children used to being surrounded by family, with loving adults to teach and nurture them, living in close quarters with many other children under the supervision of adults who were not related, not Navajo, and not always kind and loving was a terrifying experience.

When he was about eight years old Begay left home to attend such a boarding school, where he heard English for the first time. In 1934, when he was seventeen, he entered the Santa Fe Indian School. Here he was able to study with Dorothy Dunn and Geromina Montoya. Dunn had created an art education program at the school that proved to be a major influence on young Indian artists. In 1936, while a student of Dunn's, Begay painted Navajo Horse Race. He sold the work that same year to Charles Mc C. Reeve for twelve dollars. It is now in the collection of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.

Navajo Horse RaceBegay graduated in 1939 and later studied architecture at Black Mountain College in North Carolina on a scholarship from the Indian Commission. He served as a muralist in the Works Projects Administration, a major program that hired artists to create public works during the Depression. Although the location of these murals is not known, beginning in 1939 Begay did help paint the famous murals that can still be seen at Maisel's Trading Post in Albuquerque, New Mexico (Ripp, 1988). After serving three years in the U.S. Army in Europe and Iceland during World War II, he returned to civilian life. He has worked as a full- time painter ever since.

In 1946 Begay received a purchase award at the first Indian Annual painting competition at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This was one of the first and most prestigious competitions meant exclusively for Indian artists and was instrumental in promoting the fine art of Native Americans. During the 1950s Tewa Enterprises in Santa Fe was established by Begay and others to make and sell reproductions of their artwork. This was one of the first Indian-owned art reproduction businesses.

Dancing Man
Dancing Woman

Because so many of his childhood and young adult years were spent off the reservation, Begay did not have a deep understanding of his religious and ceremonial heritage. During the 1950s, however, while seeking a new creative stimulus, he was introduced to an early book on Navajo legends by the artist Don Perceval. This filled him with curiosity about traditional Navajo ceremonies, which became the subject of his paintings. He records a way of life that is thought by many to be vanishing.

Begay has struggled all his life with alcoholism. Often he has sold his work for far less than its value in order to meet immediate needs for money. This has kept prices for his work low overall. His life has not been an easy one. Still, Begay is internationally recognized, having received a major French award in 1954. His art is included in almost every exhibition and publication on Indian painting. His works are in the permanent collections of major museums all over the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the American Indian in New York City and the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.

In 1990 Begay was invited to Japan to show his work. He took forty-five works and sold them within three weeks. His work has been compared to oriental painting (Bucklew, 1967), which may explain its popularity with the Japanese.

In 1995 Begay received the Native American Masters Award from the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1997 he was named an Arizona Indian Living Treasure for his lifelong contributions in cultural arts and traditions. Although his eyesight is failing, he still paints a couple of hours a day. Currently he is living in Greasewood, Arizona, near his birthplace.

Grandmother & Granddaughter on Horseback

ArtsEdNet - The Getty's Art Education Web Site
ArtsEdNet includes lesson plans and curriculum ideas, an image gallery, and ArtsEdNet Talk, an online community of teachers and learners.


Navajo Art: A Way of Life
Navajo Art: A Way of Life consists of three lessons. Each lesson can stand alone or be used in conjunction with the others. Be sure to read About Navajo Art to gain an understanding of the conceptual framework of the unit. The key artworks provide the foundation upon which the Navajo Art curriculum unit is based. Extensive questions and answers given for each of the key artworks allow teachers and students to explore the pieces in depth.

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