This last year I met an amazing, interesting and talented artist that we are looking forward to sharing with the you. This young man and his talent are for real. I would like to share his fascinating journey towards becoming a great artist.
Shawn Begay 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.
“I didn’t know anybody and didn’t have any friends.” he says, “I was sitting in class next to a guy that was drawing horses with a pencil. Everyone seemed to like him and what he was doing. The teacher said for everyone to get out a pencil and draw something, but I didn’t have one.
“I asked the kid who was drawing the horses if I could borrow one of his. He loaned it to me, but it was dull and I was too shy to walk up in front of the class and sharpen the pencil, so I was just rubbing the tip back and forth on the paper to get a point on it. A girl came by and said, “That looks like a real tornado!” and smiled at me.
“I think the guy drawing the horses liked her and it made him mad so he asked for his pencil back, but it made me think that if she liked what I had done, imagine if I could draw horses or other things!”
And so he began to draw, “almost all of the time,” he says. “By the sixth grade, I would draw low rider 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.”
His father died and his mother moved into Farmington. She had become a teacher.
He continued to draw, everything from landscapes, to cars, animals and people.
In 1999, he applied for financial aid and went to the Al Collins Graphic Design School in Tempe. He studied typography, graphics and Photoshop. “I liked computers and video games, but it wasn’t really the kind of art I wanted to do.”
He came home but his brother Lyle, who was to become one of his prime motivators, graduated from the school. Shawn tried the Southwest Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque and earned some college credit but he felt that most of the students were more interested in partying than studying and he returned to the reservation, determined to get a job.
In 2001, he became a Navajo Scout, wild land fire fighter, working out of Fort Defiance, Arizona. Not many people pass the test to join this elite group.
“It was hard work, but it was fun,” he says. “We carried 50 pound packs of water and all of our tools. It was hot and dangerous.”
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.
That year, the middle school art teacher who worked with his mom was moving and she gave all of her paints to Shawn. “I didn’t have a paint brush, so I cut Yucca leaves and shaved off the ends of them to make brushes.
“My first paintings were splatters of color on cardboard. I was playing with the paint and the Yucca brushes. The paintings were ugly, but I was having fun. I also was starting to study art, to read all of the books I could about artists.
“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.
“I started going to Hobby Lobby and buying tubes of paint, mixing them with linseed oil, experimenting with colors. I would study a picture for hours and hours to figure out how they got the colors they used, how they made it look the way it did.
He spent a short time at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe where his bother 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.
“I was frustrated with oil paints, they were harder than acrylics, and it took two or three years to begin to feel comfortable with them. I bought a book called “How to Mix Oil Paint Colors” and worked at it until I got it right.”
2007 found him back in Shiprock. “That year I painted my first oil of Shiprock,” which Shawn looks at with reverence because of its place in Navajo religious beliefs. “I used to visit the Shiprock Hospital like it was an art gallery and compare my painting to the ones in the hospital collection.”
He began selling his paintings by walking into businesses in Shiprock. “It was easy, but then I walked into the coffee shop that was owned by Gloria Emerson. She told me I shouldn’t be selling like that and she offered to have a show for me in the coffee shop.
“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.”
Art history had become a passion to Shawn. “By 2009, I was reading about all of the modern artists, Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali and others. I started to question what I was doing with painting. Why did they paint like that? Art is supposed to be about something more, it makes you think different.”
In 2011, Lyle died. “I had to keep painting, the only time I could feel good was when I picked up a brush. It made me happy and blocked everything out.”
His aunt, Roselyn build a hogan near Two Grey Hills and Shawn moved there, taking care of it for three years while continuing to paint. His uncle, Albert Lee, who was known for his work with colored pencils, took the spot that Lyle had occupied and the two took many long walks, talking about art. They traveled together, once going to Wyoming fishing. “We talked about art the whole trip,” says Shawn.
In 2014 his world fell apart when Albert died, “and I was alone again, but I forced myself to keep painting. You can’t just sit there and miss those people. But I was depressed.”
It is interesting that it was modern technology that pulled him back. “I saw a video on YouTube by David Hockney. He talked about painting that documents, kind of like a journal that the artist creates. It made me think that no one was going to know who I was. That pulled me out of my daze.”
He credits Aida Medina, an instructor at IAIA who taught at a two week workshop that he attended, with opening his eyes to a new concept his is working on. She taught him about contour drawing, where your pencil doesn’t leave the paper until the image is complete. She then asked the students to shade their drawings using hundreds of small numbers instead of lines or dots.
Shawn’s mind responded by asking, “what if, instead of shading objects, I began to use the numbers to create contour drawings?”
That led to his experimenting with the technique of linking numbers to create images and using geometric shapes to build patterns and designs.
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.
“I can dream about my brother and now it is not sad. In my dreams we talk and laugh.
“It’s like something throws you into a river. Are you going to drown or are you going to try and swim? I think I am the kind of person that is going to swim.
“I can’t wait to see what I am doing to do!”
We are proud to present Shawn Begay’s first major gallery show during the Spring Gallery Walk, May 11 from 5 until 9 pm. We will also be posting the entire show on our web site on the 11th. Please take a few moments during your gallery walk evening to drop by and meet this talented man. You will be glad you did.