Most Native American painters today are easy to track down and find information about. They tend not to be shy about recognition or fame. Early on, that was not always true.Many of the early artists that became famous during their lifetimes avoided promoting themselves. Jimmy Toddy, better known as Beatien Yazz or “Little no Shirt,” one of the most famous of the early Navajo painters, was painfully shy as a young man.
Not wanting recognition or fame does not mean the same thing as not wanting to be a good artist. A fine example of this is Arthur C. Begay. He was born near Newcomb, New Mexico, about 10 miles east of the Two Grey Hills Trading Post. He excelled at art in school and continued to work at painting after he graduated. In the 1950s he won a fellowship to spend a year studying under Norman Rockwell, the famous Saturday Evening Post illustrator. Rockwell’s studio was in Westport, Connecticut, which is in a different world than the one in which Begay had grown up. How did he come to apply for a fellowship there when many young Native painters were attending the Santa Fe Indian School? Who knows?
Arthur also became a licensed electrician, which was his main source of income. He occasionally participated in art shows, but they were in places like Kansas and Oklahoma, far away from his base. He won many awards from the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial in the 1980s. At the time, Gallup was a show where most work was entered by traders. He sold most of his paintings in Gallup or on the reservation to traders who then entered the work. His paintings always sold at Ceremonial and he ended up with work in many museums including the Smithsonian Institute and he is mentioned, but not featured, in many books on Native art. Eventually, he moved to Shiprock and sold paintings to Ed Foutz at Shiprock Trading Post.
There is a solid group of people who collect Arthur’s work. It is always interesting to talk to them about their love for his paintings. Many of them first saw his work at the Ceremonial in Gallup or at the Kiva Gallery in that same town. It’s almost a cult following, but I never met anyone besides Ed Foutz that actually knew him.
Many of his paintings had backgrounds of Monument Valley landscapes. We have one watercolor set that features a boy and girl in front of a red rocks landscape. It is painted in the two-dimensional style of the early Santa Fe Indian School. Another painting in that same style is called “Ceremony.” It depicts a Feather Dance. If the dance is done properly, the feathers in the Navajo ceremonial basket will stand on end with no visible support.
There are two very nice watercolor portraits, one of a young man and another of a woman, obviously painted at the same time. And we have one oil painting, a medium he didn’t use often, titled Love. It pictures a Navajo woman and her child, in a cradleboard, on a horse. The back of the painting says it was done near Page, Arizona. This is the only one that is not framed.
Most of you have probably never heard of the artist but I bet next time you are in an Indian art gallery you’ll ask, “Have you got any paintings by Arthur Begay?”