Begay, Shawn

Begay, Shawn

Shawn was born in 1978. His early years were all spent at Cove, Arizona on the Navajo reservation. When he started first grade, the family moved to Newcomb, on the highway between Shiprock and Farmington. It was here that he has his first memory of drawing. 

Drawing became an obsession. “By the sixth grade, I would draw lowrider cars and sometimes guys would ask me to draw their names with their girlfriends names and draw hearts between them. They would pay me a dollar and that was great because then I could use the dollar to buy lunch at school. We had food at home, but I didn’t have enough money for lunch tickets.”

In 2001, he became a Navajo Scout, wildland firefighter, working out of Fort Defiance, Arizona. Not many people pass the test to join this elite group.
Then, in 2003, he had a life changing experience. He walked into the Shiprock Hospital and looked up at a huge painting by James King, whose Navajo name is Woolen Shirt. It was an oil painting of a Navajo Grandmother petting her sheep with Shiprock in the background. The sun was shining through the clouds on her.
“My brain just lit up,” says Shawn. “I want to paint like that!” he thought. “I found a book about 16th Century Dutch Art with stories about Rembrandt, Vermeer and all the artist of that time. I remember reading the book over and over. It talked about oil paints and how they mixed them and how they got the effects they did.

He spent a short time at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe where his brother Lyle was a student, but he grew frustrated with the school and quit. “I just wasn’t ready,” he says. 
But he stayed in Santa Fe and he and Lyle fed each other’s curiosity. “We would stay up in his room all night painting, talking about Picasso, Rembrandt, Salvador Dali, anything about art. We went to museums like the Georgia O’Keefe and looked at paintings. If we couldn’t figure out how an artist did something we would ask the museum people. 

He had his first show in a coffee shop in Shiprock. “It was great and I sold all of the paintings. One of the people who came to the show was James King, whose painting I had seen at the hospital. He bought two of my paintings and he told me that he did that because I was going to be successful. That was amazing because he is so good.”

Today Shawn sees art and his future in a positive way. 
“Art is supposed to be evolving into something else, that’s really the definition of art. You take something that someone already did and you add your own flavor to it. It kind of explains everything. I am sure the Navajo didn’t just build hogans, something else led them to that. I know I am evolving, I am still working at it and it feels like I am never finished.