sandpainting_-_navajo_pottery_by_eugene_joe_cacmt21-08_2Back in the late 1950s, Navajo artists began to make small sand paintings featuring figures and designs that were part of the traditional Navajo healing sand paintings.

These paintings were sold at tourist shops and Native American stores around the country, and over the next fifty years, hundreds of artists created sand paintings for that market.

A few dealers encouraged artists to expand on the simplicity of the gift shop type of painting, and a second level of sand painter emerged. These people created paintings that closely followed the traditional healing paintings done by the medicine men. It was understood that the finished piece could not be exactly like the one used in ceremonies. That would be blasphemous and could put the artist in danger.

These traditional pieces were widely accepted and found their way into homes and offices. My father’s favorite piece of art was a sand painting called Coyote Stealing Fire which hung over his office desk.

Eugene_JoeEugene Joe

In the early 1970s, a new style of sand art appeared when Eugene Joe began to look at the art of sand painting as though he was painting designs and pictures on an easel.

His father, James C. Joe, had been experimenting with sand painting since 1962. Eugene, born in 1952, apprenticed with his father, learning the art form from its primary stages.

Eugene was always sure he wanted to be an artist. When he went to boarding school at the age of five, he saw a drawing of a stallion and had a sense that he could do things like that. He never wavered.

James took his son on road trips where they gathered different colors of sand and rock to grind into painting material. Most traditional sand paintings were done with limited colors, but Eugene estimates that he and his father collected and worked with over 200 different color materials.

While his father occasionally deviated from traditional designs, Eugene jumped on new styles with abandon. Some of his first efforts were landscape paintings of the reservation. Later he did portraits and images of people and animals. He began signing his work “Baatsoslani,” which translates into “He who has many feathers.”


Donald Esley, an artist from Maine, taught him about three-dimensional effects and shading. Eugene’s work evolved to an entirely different level. He began to paint still lifes and included geometric/pictorial backgrounds in his work. Many pieces feature both Navajo and Pueblo art forms. His heritage contained some Pueblo blood, and he felt comfortable examining it in his art.

Eugene reached celebrity status when people like Robert Redford, Johnny Cash, and others began to collect his art. He authored a book on sand painting with Mark Bahti that is still available. He was at the top of the sand painting world, but it never changed him.

He still lives in Shiprock, teaches some workshops, lectures occasionally on art, and is a student of the history of Shiprock.

Interestingly, Joe is the brother of Jeanette Dale, one of the best silversmiths in the Navajo Nation.

Tom and Fran Bayless, who live in the Midwest, collected the pieces in the Fall Gallery Walk Show. They began traveling to the Southwest in 1952 when Eugene was born. They started buying his sand art from Ed Foutz at Shiprock Trading Post in 1972 and continued to purchase pieces into the 1990s.

It is a special privilege to share these with you.

See all Eugene Joe Sandpaintings in the Gallery