Many people admire the beauty of design and craftsmanship of sand-paintings, rugs, and other Navajo art. But how well do we understand the cultural context in which the Navajo artist works, as well as the influence of Navajo and mainstream cultural values and aesthetics on the artist? By sharing our conversation with Shonto Begay, a contemporary Navajo painter and illustrator, we hope to shed light on the range of ideas and issues that teachers might incorporate into their teaching about Navajo art that would promote deeper understanding and appreciation.
We began our conversation on the deck of Shonto's solar-powered studio hogan overlooking the breathtaking expanses of Tsegi Canyon near Kayenta, Arizona.
Faith Clover: Shonto, how did you become an artist?
Shonto Begay: The whole lifestyle I lived as a kid was conducive to becoming an artist, to developing a personal vision, thoughts, dreams, ideas. The advantage I had was growing up without television. Growing up in a very traditional Navajo household, herding sheep out there, spending days out there all by myself gave me a lot of time to reflect, a lot of time to look at the clouds form themselves into various images. It gave me a lot of time to study the dust devils and little patterns upon the slick rock I was sitting on. I daydreamed, drew pictures, and later on read, read, read, read. I read all the classics upon my story rock there. In the evening in the hogan my four older brothers and I used to draw pictures on the dirt floor. We could situate a kerosene lamp so that it cast shadows, smooth out the dirt and just draw. No art materials, just a stick and a smooth earthen floor.
Everyone could draw pictures, and I was just one of the ones who could draw an image. I thought it was just something that everybody naturally could do. It was as natural as breathing and walking. It wasn't a gift. So I couldn't think of becoming an artist, or making a living, as an artist, or anything like that. How do you make a living at breathing? It wasn't until I was in high school that I got affirmation from an art teacher. He said that if I worked as an artist I could make a living.
FC: You mention that you read a great deal as a boy. How did reading and art connect for you?
SB: Well, I come from a family of storytellers. My grandmothers told stories. My uncles told stories. My father [who is a medicine man] is a storehouse of traditional creation stories, coyote stories -- everything. My grandmother talked about the wars and other things from way back in her childhood. And my uncle told about World War II. There were all these stories coming together. I was just hungry for that. And so, when I was out there by myself, reading was a form of communicating, a form of being closest to the gods, to imagine, to see through the words. I'd get lost in the story, get lost up there. I'd look up and the sheep might be in the cornfield. Or the coyotes might be carrying the lambs away. I'd get in trouble. I still get lost in stories.
Alan Jim. What role do your spiritual beliefs play in your art and your life?
SB: I think that as an artist of this culture you really can't separate the two. When you are creating something, it is a very spiritual undertaking. My grandmother always made that a point in later years. The broken circle, the broken cycle of brushstrokes is just like healing. There is a completion of centeredness, a completion of a chant being done.
I did a painting this summer that included lightning. I was brought up to know that you don't paint lightning casually. So there were lots of prayers and petitioning to the sacred beings. [Note: Lightning and certain other natural phenomenon are believed to be endowed as sacred entities and to possess great and potentially harmful power and should not be recreated casually.]
FC: How is your art related to traditional Navajo art?
SB: The old …