Published on August 25, 2013 by Amy
The knowledge of sacred painting in sand was given to the Navajo by the Holy People as a way to invoke the power of these deities to restore balance and harmony in their lives. The images that were passed on to the people were powerful, and the Navajo were instructed that the images be created in coloured sand and destroyed before sunrise to avoid the possibility of accidental misuse, or purposeful abuse by witches. Ceremonial sandpaintings depict images from religious events. The Medicine man passes on the knowledge the sand paintings used in each chant to an apprentice. Medicine men would reproduce parts of the sacred images on cloth or hide as memory aids and teaching tools. A medicine man named Hosteen Klah is credited with the first sandpainting images reproduced as art, which he wove into rugs.
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There is conflicting information regarding who it was that put the first Navajo sandpaintings on boards for sale, but you have come to the right place for the inside story related to me by my father. In 1950 Fred Stevens, a Navajo medicine man, was working for Rex Bolin at a highway store at Box Canyon, Arizona on the now famous Route 66. This was my grandfather’s store and Fred Stevens was working there for Rex, my great uncle, singing and drumming for a troupe of Indian dancers that would put on a show for the tourists. Fred would also do sandpaintings for the public in a large 8′ x 8′ “sandbox”. Adhering to tradition, the painting was destoyed every night and Fred would start another the next morning. At some point Rex suggested putting the sandpaintings on a board and selling them. There was an artist in Concho, Ariz. who had been painting with sand for over 20 years by the name of George DeVille. Rex knew DeVille so he and Fred went to Concho to learn the process to get the sand to adhere to the board. My father wasn’t sure, but assumed there was some monetary consideration for revealing the process. With this new knowledge Fred began doing sandpaintings on boards, or rather partial sandpaintings, as they couldn’t be complete without being destroyed before dawn. Fred did all his sandpaintings on the boards just like he would for a healing ceremony. He would take a pinch of hand ground colored sand between thumb and forefinger and drizzle it out on the sanded board making the most incredibly fine thin straight lines. There were a lot of problems early on with the sandpaintings on boards. The white sand and other light colors yellowed from bleed through of the adhesive. If they were scratched it would leave an irreparable mark. If dropped the sand would come off. By the late 50′s most of the problems had been solved, many by Fred’s own experimenting, and more improvements by others who were taking up the art. Today the paintings are almost indestructible. They are no longer done with a pinch of sand between thumb and forefinger but with a tube. The sand is no longer hand ground but bought over the counter and very, very few artists are medicine men. Fred signed his paintings “Grey Squirrel” and his work is very collectible. When he passed away he was participating in program at Rough Rock where medicine men were working with medical doctors to help bridge the gap between traditional and modern medicine. My father says he has seen several sandpainters doing full size sandpaintings the traditional way but they weren’t nearly as skilled as Fred Stevens, with one exception; Eugene C. Joe Baatsoslani (many coats) who is equally as skilled maybe even better.