Shonto Begay: 'Art Saves Lives'
By Chadd Scott
Shonto Begay, b. 1954 (Navajo), The Gaagi'' Call, 2021. Acrylic on canvas 30” x 48”
“Art saves lives.” –Shonto Begay.
For Diné (Navajo) artist Shonto Begay (b. 1954), that’s more than a figure of speech. It’s autobiographical.
“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 Forbes.com.
Begay’s personal history reaches back into an era difficult to imagine in a contemporary world.
He was born in a ceremonial Navajo hogan–a sacred home–to a mother who was a traditional Navajo rug weaver from the Bitter Water Clan. His father was a medicine man born to the Salt Clan. Begay grew up in the 1950s as one of 16 kids, herding sheep in the cinematically beautiful rock cliffs, canyons and chapparal-covered mountains of Kletha Valley, deep inside the Navajo Nation in tiny Shonto, Arizona.
“Shonto” in Diné translates to “sunshine spring.”
It wasn’t his tribal upbringing which created “a generation of the walking traumas,” the “trauma” Begay experienced came in the form of the dehumanizing U.S. government run Indian Boarding Schools. In the abusive and tragic annals of American History, the Indian Boarding Schools stand as particularly inhumane. Native American children torn from their families and sent far away into forced white, euro-centric cultural assimilation camps.
“Kill the Indian, save the man” was the mantra of these institutions founded on white supremacy with that operating philosophy as their only guiding principle.
“It was a casualty,” Begay says of 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.”
From a birth in “sunshine spring” to the horrors of Indian Boarding School. Life began with beauty and family and joy for Begay. His “pursuit of happiness” was interrupted by state sponsored confinement and a state sponsored attempt to tear his Native soul out.
Art kept that from happening.
“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 or 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.”
Shonto Begay’s artwork represents nothing less than life itself. His own life. A life which statistics indicate would have been crushed out had he not found it.
That’s what visitors to the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico can observe during the exhibition, “Shonto Begay: Eyes of the World,” on view now through October 3, 2021. Santa Fe and the Wheelwright are again open for visitors after being shut down throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shonto Begay, b. 1954 (Navajo), One Tree Hill, 2020. Acrylic on canvas 30” x 40”
On the Road with Shonto Begay
Begay, who now lives and works out of Flagstaff, Arizona, is best known for his paintings of the desolate roads which stretch endlessly through the unmistakable landscapes of the Desert Southwest. Paintings of hitchhikers along these roads.
These, too, are autobiographical.
“When I grew up on the reservation, it was a very isolated place, so everywhere we went, we had to hitchhike,” Begay explains. “So the highway became a good friend, the highway became a lifeline to pretty much everything we knew. But the road is more than that. It's always been about opening up new epiphanies, opening up new locations, putting the light around you, learning, being free, the joy of new discovery.”
In the early 1970s, Begay would take out on the road for weeks at a time.
“Especially in my mid-teens, coming from a family of 16 kids–who’s going to miss me,” Begay recalls, chuckling. “You’d just stick your thumb out on the highway in the summertime and get out on the road with no destination–totally free. Totally free with $5 in your pocket.”
The benefit these experiences had on Begay’s artwork was in keeping his curiosity sharp, “keeping your vision clear and always squinting into the unknown.” It honed his observation skills and filled his mind with millions of beautiful images of the rugged Southwest, beauty to combat the ugliness of the boarding school.
Begay doesn’t recommend the hitchhiking lifestyle today.
“In the old days, (everybody was) putting out good energy, knowing that nobody's going to hurt you,” the artist remembers. “Everybody loved each other. These days, there’s fear, paranoia.”
Now in his late 60s, Begay maintains his restless spirit.
“My dreams are still about traveling,” he says. “My energy has never been static. Even though my body may be still at times, I'm pretty much all over the place.”
Shonto Begay new artwork
Shonto Begay’s newest paintings can be found at Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona where from April 24 through May 8, eight new paintings of his will be on display and for sale. The gallery has represented Begay since 2006.
Whether painted early in his career in the mid-1980s, or fresh off the easel from 2020, Begay’s artwork maintains its through line.
“I go back and forth and tell the same story in various forms,” he said. “I just narrate and document my life, my struggles–not so much currently, but everything holistically. A lot of that I do not so much through anger and harsh paints–through lavender–letting the colors make peace, in a lot of ways just letting each stroke, each paint, each mark be syllables, be that word, in a sentence, to a paragraph in a great prayer–that’s pretty much what I do.”
Shonto Begay, b. 1954 (Navajo), The Grandest of Views, 2021. Acrylic on canvas 72” x 48”
In his own words
The Wheelwright offers a personal audio guide to its exhibit accessible from any phone. Dial (505) 431-5288 then use these prompts:
31# - Begay shares insight on his painting style
32# - Begay discusses inspiration on painting landscapes
33# - Begay talks about the painting, Helpless (below)