Beverly Blacksheep & Ben Harjo Jr. | Painting

Beverly Blacksheep, Between Heaven and Earth [1998], acrylic, 32 x 18., painting, southwest art.
Beverly Blacksheep, Between Heaven and Earth [1998], acrylic, 32 x 18.

By Anne Hillerman

Traditional Painting

Beverly Blacksheep

The daughter and granddaughter of weavers, Beverly Blacksheep grew up on the Navajo reservation, herding sheep and spinning and carding wool. But painting, not weaving, captured her imagination. Her mother had a print by Harrison Begay in the house, and the Arizona Highways magazines at her grandmother’s place had pictures of Begay’s work along with that of Beatian Yazz and other practitioners of what Blacksheep calls the “Santa Fe School style.” It was love at first sight.

“No one painted in my family—they were weavers,” she says. “But I don’t have the patience to go thread by thread. I like to see the results sooner.” A self-taught artist, Blacksheep majored in interior design at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where she picked up techniques from design, drafting, and color coordination classes. She started painting as a hobby in college. “I didn’t sell my work; it sold itself,” she says. “But I didn’t realize I could make a living at it until later on.”

Blacksheep worked full time as a retail manager until a back injury brought her home to the reservation. “There aren’t many retail jobs out there, so I started messing around with art again to stay busy. I ran into artists who encouraged me to paint full time. I got some help from different outlets that accepted my work.”

Beverly Blacksheep, photograph, southwest art.
Beverly Blacksheep

Blacksheep first showed at Indian Market in 1993. Her work is now at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and she has won numerous awards, including first- and second-place honors at the prestigious Intertribal Indian Ceremonial in Gallup, NM, and the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock, AZ.

Like the painters she admires, Blacksheep focuses on animals and the traditional Navajo way of life. She’s beginning to explore more contemporary subjects and has expanded her media to include painting on canvas with brighter colors, although she continues to work with opaque watercolor.

Art is now her full time job, even though she is also a wife and mother of three children and works in a first-grade classroom. As a teacher, she likes to talk to older students about art as a career. “They always ask me how much money I make, and I tell them, ‘not much.’ Art isn’t about the money,” she says. “People who are blessed with talent in this way have a divine gift. If you’re lucky enough to have the gift, you should use it. Don’t take it for granted.”

Her advice for people who want to be artists is to hang in there. “If you believe in yourself and have people who believe in you, continue to do what you do best. You have to take life as it comes. It’s like a roller coaster. I’ve had to struggle and I’m still struggling, but I find a lot of joy from doing art. I hope to do it the rest of my life.”

Contemporary Painting

Ben Harjo Jr. , Cosmic Trickster [2000], acrylic and gouache, 18 x 28., painting, southwest art.
Ben Harjo Jr., Cosmic Trickster [2000], acrylic and gouache, 18 x 28.

Ben Harjo Jr.

Painter Benjamin Harjo Jr. makes his 17th appearance at Indian Market this summer. Harjo, of Seminole-Shawnee ancestry, showed for the first time at Indian Market in 1983. His debut there was appropriate since he received his first formal art training at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a national art school for Native Americans also located in Santa Fe. Art reviewers often comment on the humor in Harjo’s work. It’s a trademark that emerged when he was in high school drawing cartoons. He wanted to be a professional cartoonist and hoped to learn the ropes at the IAIA. “But the year I got there, they dropped cartooning,” he says with a chuckle. “So instead I studied design and color with Seymour Tubis, a fine teacher.”

Last year, Harjo’s award-winning painting for Indian Market memorialized his longtime friend Bill Prokopiof, an IAIA classmate and Aleut artist from Alaska. The painting, Market Gamble, included some card players and one of Prokopiof’s well-known Walking Wally’s, a walrus sculpture. “We all gamble each time we participate in a market,” Harjo says. “We take all of our artwork paintings, sculpture, kachinas, jewelry, what-have-you and put it out there. Sometimes something pays off; sometimes we wonder what we will do next.”

After completing two years at IAIA, Harjo went on to receive a bachelor of fine arts degree from Oklahoma State University. He then took on a variety of art-related jobs and continued to paint. His reputation grew, and eventually he became a full-time artist.

His work has evolved into a more abstract style over the years. He currently uses geometric patterns and bold color, often incorporating hands and faces into his compositions. “It’s a type of style I’m not bored with, something I can experiment with,” Harjo says. “Sometimes I might put other images in there. Sometimes people find images I didn’t put in there. I wonder, how did they get there?”

Over his 20-year career, Harjo has won many honors and awards, including consistently receiving top awards at Indian Market since he began exhibiting there. In anticipation of Indian Market 2000, Harjo is continuing his tradition of creating a special piece for the miniature category and a major new work for the painting competition. “I enjoy the market, seeing people I only get to see once a year, seeing their artwork and what direction they’re going while I’m advancing in my own direction,” he says. “It has been a big help.”

From the traditional style and imagery of Blacksheep’s watercolors to Harjo’s graphic, abstracted works, Native American paintings are thriving. This vitality will surely continue as new directions are forged by Native American painters of the 21st century.

Ben Harjo is represented by Southwest Designs, New Orleans, LA, and Oklahoma Indian Art Gallery, Oklahoma City, OK.

Featured in “Portfolio: Tradition and Innovation” August 2000