Published on May 18, 2012 by Amy
Benjamin Harjo, Jr. (born 1945) is an award-winning Absentee Shawnee-Seminole painter and printmaker from Oklahoma.
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Harjo is half-Seminole and half-Shawnee and is enrolled in the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Harjo’s father was the late Benjamin Harjo, Sr., a full blood Seminole. Harjo’s mother, Viola Harjo, lives in Byng, Oklahoma. Viola’s father was William F. Harjo, who graduated from Chilocco Indian School in 1939. Viola married Benjamin Harjo’s stepfather, Roman Harjo (1924–2006) in 1954 at Clovis, New Mexico.
The name Harjo means “Crazy” in the Muscogee language and is part of a military title, Chitto Harjo or “Crazy snake.”
Harjo was born on September 19, 1945 in Clovis, New Mexico. The family moved back to Oklahoma, and Harjo lived with his grandparents, Emmett and Ruth Wood, from age 10 to 18.
Harjo’s first passion was cartooning, and he sold comics to his high school newspaper. Interested in pursuing a professional career in cartoon animation, Harjo went to the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1966, only to discover that their animation program no longer existed. He stayed at IAIA anyway and earned his Associate of Arts degree. His classmates included such luminaries as T. C. Cannon and Linda Lomahaftewa. Seymour Tubis was his most influential teacher, who taught him low-tech but highly effective printmaking techniques.
In 1969 was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971.
Upon his release from the military, Harjo continuing his art education and attended Oklahoma State University and graduated with a BFA degree in 1974.
Harjo typically paints geometric forms composed of blocks of highly saturated color that form both abstract and highly stylized representational figures. The mosaic nature of his painting is reminiscent of traditional Seminole patchwork clothing. He also works in pen and ink, allowing his comic influences to show through. Through printmaking, Harjo is able to experiment with texture and subtler palettes. His work is known for its humor, either in comical imagery or in witty titles.
His miniature paintings can be not much larger than postage stamp but still portray naturalistic portraits. Harjo’s chosen media include oil, acrylic, watercolor, gouache, conté crayons, pencil, pen and ink, pastel, printmaking, and occasionally sculpture.
When you’re traveling down the highway, you see an image whether it’s dirt on the back of a truck or a splat on a windshield or two birds sitting by the side of the road picking at something. All those things have inspired me at some point in my creativity.
It has always been my contention that one’s art speaks from the soul of the artist and remains viable and open to the influences of the artist’s environment. Forms, colors, and movement keep it from stagnating and allow it to grow as the artist matures and develops. I feel that my art covers a wide range of emotions, from serious to humorous, and that the colors I used radiate a sense of happiness and joy.
His artwork can be found in the many public collections, including the following:
Harjo was the 2005 poster artist for SWAIA’s Santa Fe Indian Market, where he has consistently won top awards, including Best of Show, since 1983. In 1987 he won the Red Earth Grand Award. He was the 1993 Heard Museum’s 34th Annual Featured Artist, the Featured Artist in 1992 and 1993 for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s Annual Aspen Benefit, and the Gold Medal Award at the 1990 American Indian Cowboy Artists Wichita Show.
Oklahoma Governor David Walters honored Harjo for his selection by Absolut Vodka to represent Oklahoma in its USA Today advertising campaign. In 1992, Harjo showed his work at the Franco-American Institute in Rennes, France. In 1991, the Wichita Art Museum held a solo exhibition of his work, and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian hosted a major retrospective of Harjo’s work, entitled “The Earth, the Moon, and the Stars Above.” At a January 2010 solo exhibition at his alma mater, the Oklahoma State University, Harjo donated all proceeds of his art sales to OSU’s Art Department.
Benjamin Harjo lives in Oklahoma City with his wife, Barbara, a curator and gardener.