Catching up with Shonto Begay
By Chadd Scott on
What a joy hearing Shonto Begay (b. 1954; Diné) on Mark Sublette’s “Art Dealer Diaries” podcast. Again.
Begay joined Sublette for Episode 276 released January 3, 2024, and first appeared on the show way back on Episode 2 in May of 2018.
I forget where I originally came across Begay’s work, but by the time I first saw one of his paintings in person at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, Florida in 2018, I was familiar with him. I was instantly attracted to his “mark making.”
That’s the fancy art world term for the technique an artist uses to apply paint or draw lines. Literally, the making of marks.
The brushwork. An artistic fingerprint, so to speak.
It’s how you can look at a painting by Shonto Begay and know it’s a painting by Shonto Begay without seeing the signature or someone telling you.
Look at a van Gogh painting up close if you’re lucky enough to have the chance. No one before or since made marks like that. Short. Chunky. Free. Flowing.
The way van Gogh applied paint to the canvas was unique. Same with Begay.
If I had to compare Begay to anyone artistically, it would be van Gogh. Similarly short, swirled, curly-cue brushstrokes. In my favorite Begay paintings, anyhow.
The artist was at Sublette’s Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, AZ to deliver new paintings, an exciting opportunity for collectors. Sublette puts his money where his mouth is with Begay, not only representing him, but collecting his work as well. I hope to one day.
Begay’s paintings are shockingly affordable for an artist with legit museum credentials, one I consider essential to contemporary Indigenous art.
‘Art Saves Lives’
I had the great fortune of interviewing Shonto Begay for a story I wrote in 2021 about an exhibition of his work at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
He was born in a ceremonial Navajo hogan. His mother was a weaver; his father a medicine man. He grew up, one of 16 kids, herding sheep in the Kletha Valley, a strikingly beautiful place deep inside the Navajo Nation near tiny Shonto, AZ.
Life would not always be so idyllic.
“I was what they call a generation of the walking traumas because of the 13 boys that I grew up with very closely, there's only three of us alive,” Begay told me then.
Indian Boarding Schools. Assimilation. Cultural genocide.
Begay experienced it.
“It was a casualty,” Begay explained to me about his time in the boarding schools. “Mentally, physically–it took a lot of lives. A sense of hopelessness. It was a brutal situation. It was a really brutal experience. I survived it and that's why I do art. It keeps me from going to a place where I don’t want to go.”
Begay shares a remarkable story from his boarding school days in his latest appearance on “Art Dealer Diaries,” and when he says “art saves lives,” it isn’t merely a figure of speech. He means it.
Artmaking saved his life.
“It has allowed me to stay alive–painting–that’s why I say art saves lives,” Begay said. “Every day, this is how I spend my days, to create beauty, externalize the pain, the angst, and really dance with the demons that have been haunting me. This is what art does and that's one of the reasons why I practice; I don't practice art for fame or money, it's always been about medicine, about maintaining a sense of space, as an amulet, as a practice, a chant, a mantra into the universe sustaining life.”
His brushstrokes, his marks, are chants put down in paint. The visual representation of prayers. A form of medicine.
When purchasing a Shonto Begay painting, that’s what you’re acquiring. That’s what you’re supporting.
Supporting Native artists helps them survive, persist – and their cultures, traditions, lifeways, families, and stories – in a direct way that supporting other artists does not. Supporting Native artists matters.
“Shonto Begay’s artwork represents nothing less than life itself,” I wrote at the time. “His own life. A life statistics indicate would have been crushed out had he not found it.”
Shonto Begay is a national treasure. To the Navajo Nation and the American nation. His timeless paintings will continue speaking through the generations.
When listening to him, I know I am coming closer to an understanding. An understanding of what, I’m not exactly sure, but I know he leads the way. He has that gift. Wisdom.
His paintings lead the way as well.
Perhaps his art can save your life too.