Renowned Navajo Painter, Harrison Begay, Walks On

Renowned Navajo Painter, Harrison Begay, Walks On

By: 
Alysa Landry
8/31/12

Harrison Begay, a world renowned Navajo painter who enjoyed a more than 70-year career and is considered one of the fathers of contemporary American Indian art, died August 18, at age 98.

He is best known for his portraits of Navajo life, which he captured in watercolors and acrylics, said Mark Sublette, owner of Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Sublette worked with Begay’s pieces for more than 20 years, he said.

“I think he was one of the first Dineh artists to come to the forefront of the art world,” Sublette said of Begay. “His paintings capture the Navajo Nationin a sort of idyllic representation. His paintings also are very pleasing to look at. There’s always a story behind them.”

Begay was born November 15, 1914, though no record of his birth exists, said Colleen Gorman, a great-niece to Begay. He served in the military duringWorld War II, and his military papers later served as a form of identification.

“He knew he was born in 1914, and that it was in the fall,” Gorman said. “So he chose his birthday to be November 15.”

Begay served in communications in Normandy, Germany, France and Iceland. While he France, he was shot while working on a telephone pole. He fell down a 300-foot canyon, breaking several bones, including his back. Eight months later, after recuperating in a hospital, he was released from duty.

After the war, Begay discovered the artwork of Don Perceval, who wrote a book about Navajo legends. Begay began painting the legends and ceremonies of his people.

“What I remember is that he was always reading,” Gorman said. “He painted all the Navajo sacred mountains, and he painted the holy people. He also painted ceremonies or dances that have been lost to the Navajo.”

His pieces also show Indians on horseback or children at play, Sublette said.

“His art from the 60s, his early work, that is the most desirable,” Sublette said. “That was when he was in his zenith of being able to produce what he wanted to do. His earlier work is powerful, it’s majestic.”

Begay’s art is considered a historical record of traditional Navajo life and philosophy. He introduced to contemporary American Indian art the delicate fine line style.

Begay received many prestigious awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented in 2003 by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts.

Begay was missing at the time the award was presented, Gorman said. He disappeared from his sister’s house in the middle of the night seven years ago.

His family saw him once in 2008 when he was in the Gallup, New Mexico Indian Hospital being treated for pneumonia. His family looked for him throughout the Navajo Nation, and in Arizona and New Mexico. The family was informed of Begay’s death a week after he was admitted to the hospital to be treated for colon and prostate cancer.

Funeral services were August 22.

“There’s so much of his life I don’t know about,” Gorman said. “But despite all the hardships, he was still able to put into his work the Navajo Beauty Way. The Navajo way of life came through in his work.”

Read a 2002 interview with Harrison Begay by Gary Auerbach on his website at GaryAuerbach.com.

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