Published on July 30, 2012 by Amy
Harrison Begay (Haashké yah Níyá, “Warrior Who Walked Up to His Enemy”), (born 1914(?), White Cone, Arizona) is a renowned Navajo painter, perhaps the most famous of his generation. Begay specializes in watercolors and silkscreen prints. He is the oldest living former student of Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School. His work has won multiple awards, and is exhibited in museums and private collections worldwide.
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Harrison Begay was born in the fall of (probably) 1914, at White Cone, near Greasewood, Arizona in the Navajo Nation, to Black Rock and Zonnie Tachinie Begay. His mother belonged to the Zuni White Corn Clan, and his father was Walk Around Clan / Near Water Clan. Young Harrison herded his family’s flock of sheep near Greasewood, where he still lives.
In 1933, he entered the Santa Fe Indian School to study art under Dorothy Dunn in her new Studio School. His classmates included Gerald Nailor, Quincy Tahoma, Geronima Montoya and Andrew Tsihnahjinnie. Begay learned Dunn’s characteristic “Studio Style” or “flat-style painting”; in her book American Indian Painting of the Southwest and Plains Areas, Dunn described Begay’s work as “at once decorative and lifelike, his color clear in hue and even in value, his figures placid yet inwardly animated…. [H]e seemed to be inexhaustibly resourceful in a quiet reticent way.”
In 1940, he attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, to study architecture for one year. In 1941, he enrolled in Phoenix College in Arizona. From 1942 to 1945, Begay served in the US Army Signal Corps.
Begay returned to the Navajo reservation in 1947, and has made his living as a painter ever since. Begay has continued to paint in the Dorothy Dunn “Studio style” throughout his long career – he was still painting (in acrylics) in 2004, at age 90. His work has been included in almost every important public and private collection of Native American art, including the Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Northern Arizona, the Heard Museum, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Wheelwright Museum, the Southwest Museum, the Philbrook Museum, the Gilcrease Museum, and many more.
Begay won two grand awards at the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial and has been a consistent winner at state and tribal fairs. In 1954, he was awarded the French Ordre des Palmes Académiques. In 1995, he was awarded the Native American Masters Award by the Heard Museum. In 2003, he won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, the organizers of the annual Santa Fe Indian Market.
Begay paints scenes from traditional Navajo life, showing the beauty of a “timeless, peaceful and gentle world”. “Although his prodigious output included facile minor works tending towards sentimentality, his major work is characterized by inventiveness, originality, refinement and delicacy.” His most familiar subjects are Navajo people in ceremonial and daily life, horses and riders, and deer.
Begay’s work has been featured in publications such as Enduring Tradition: Art of the Navajos, by Lois and Jerry Jacka; Southwest Indian Painting, by Clara Lee Tanner; and When the Rainbow Touches Down, by Tryntje Van Ness Seymour.