Michael Chiago, 'Vikigha Ceremony: Great Spring Harvest Dance' (detail)

Painter Michael Chiago Captures Arizona Native Life in Watercolors

Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan

Self-taught watercolor artist and illustrator, Michael Chiago, Tohono O’odham/Pima-Maricopa, has been painting for over 40 years. Chiago is famous for capturing the lives of O’odham people, everything from making cecemait (tortillas) on a homemade stove to picking saguaro fruit in the summer time. He has traveled to London and Paris to share his work and heritage with others. He has illustrated books, created murals and has a permanent exhibit called “Home” at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. He has also won numerous awards and participated in several shows such as the SWAIA’s Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Indian Fair and Market. He spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network about his life as an artist and why he enjoys painting his heritage.

Can you tell us about yourself?

I live in North Komlic on the Tohono O’odham reservation, 50 miles west of Tucson, Arizona and I was born west of there in a small village called Kohatk. My dad is Pima-Maricopa and my mother is Tohono O’odham. I went to school on the reservation, then to St. John’s Indian School in Laveen, Arizona. Then I went to school to be a barber and got my license. After that I went to the Marines and volunteered to go overseas to Vietnam for six months and came back. I was stationed in Oceanside, California.

When did you begin painting?

When I went into the service in the late 60s, I used my G.I. Bill to help me go to school. I took advantage of that and used it for three and a half years. I went to school for Commercial Art at what was called Maricopa Community College at the time. When I was going to school I would paint off and on as a hobby. In 1971, I started painting fancy dancers because I used to dance when I was in high school. There were other Natives who sold their art, so I did too, to make ends meet. I still have one painting left that I did in 1971.

When did you get serious about being an artist?

I landed a job before I finished my four years [of college]. I then start pursing my painting and working. I worked at it and worked at it. It was tiresome at first because people would pass on my art work and say, “maybe next time.” I started selling my painting to Indian shops then non-Indian shops and then I was asked to do a painting for Arizona Highways Magazine. Afterwards, I started getting calls from people who wanted paintings. 

What made you want to paint about your heritage?

I never thought about painting O’odham [people] until one day this guy asked me my tribe and then asked me why do you paint feather dancers. I told him it was all I knew and then I thought about it for a long time. I then went to my mom and started asking her things. I started painting O’odham baskets and pottery and then traditional O’odham homes. Afterwards I started sketching people. Now, I do paintings of different dances, religious like processions, the saguaro fruit harvest, basket dancers, O’odham home life like washing clothes, making cecemait (tortillas), chopping wood and cooking. In certain painting I always put myself by a wa:to (O’odham ramada) on the left side.


How do you feel when you paint? 

I’m self-taught and it just came naturally. Now, when I paint the O’odham people and dances it makes me feel good, it makes me feel a part of it. It gives me a lot of pleasure to sit there and paint. I'd rather be painting than watching television. I enjoy everything I do.

What is the best part of your job?

I’ve been doing this all these years and I am not tired of it–it is just me. I like educating others about the O’odham culture and meeting other Native American artists. I also do a lot of public speaking on and off the reservation. I don’t know how long I can paint but I will keep on doing it for as long as I can.

Learn more about Michael Chiago and his work at michaelchiago.com.