The traditional Navajo sand paintings that are created by the Medicine Man (or Woman) in healing and blessing ceremonies are intricate and large, usually covering the floor of a hogan.
These designs have been passed down through the years, from Medicine Man to apprentices as they learn the songs and chants that go with the sand painting.
In the 1960s, in response to a large interest in Native American art forms, Navajo artists began to create sand paintings in permanent form, gluing the sand to plywood and fiberboard backings. At first, these were small paintings, perhaps with the figure of a Yei (Navajo Deity) or other simple designs found in the larger sand paintings. They were usually sold unframed.
As time went on, they became more detailed and many larger sand paintings were made to look like the actual paintings that were used in ceremonies. The artist always omitted or changed some element of the ceremonial art as it would be sacrilegious to create a painting that was permanent and was not used for its intended purposes.
Many of the artists were Medicine Men or members of their families, so it is not surprising that the paintings got more and more detailed. On many of them, the artist would tell the story of the sand painting he was basing the work on, writing it in pencil on the back. These larger pieces were generally sold in simple wooden frames.
What moved these paintings to a new level was the creative framing that was done by people like Bill Foutz in Shiprock and Vince and Helen Ferraro in Farmington. They began to frame these pieces using multiple mats cut in highly intricate patterns that complimented the work. It seems crazy to say that the frames made that much of a difference, but what was happening is that people were taking the time to frame sand paintings with the care that they would have framed a nice watercolor or oil painting.
The work was being recognized as real art, not just a tourist item.
A few sand painters, such as Eugene Joe, Little River, and others started doing pictorial sand paintings. By the 1990s Navajo sand art had become a Native American collectible. There were, and are still, simple sand paintings done for the tourist market, but today there are two tiers of artists in this field.
We recently received a collection of these beautifully framed pieces that were from the 1990s. They include traditional styles as well as pictorial art. They are examples of what the collaboration between a fine piece of art and a unique frame can produce.