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Harrison Begay

 (1914 - 2012)
Harrison (Haskay Yahne Yah) Begay was active/lived in Arizona, New Mexico.  Harrison Begay is known for genre-Indian, wildlife, and mural painting, silkscreen.

Harrison Begay

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Harrison Begay
Born in White Cone, Arizona, Harrison Begay creates prints and paintings in tempera, watercolor and acrylics of Navajo Indian figures and other Southwest scenes that are regarded as "quiet and peaceful" in tone. He has also painted murals for Maisel's Indian Trading Post in Albuquerque.

He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a member of the Navaho tribe. He attended Fort Wingate Indian School in New Mexico and in 1939, graduated from Santa Fe Indian School. He also attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina and Phoenix Junior College before World War II and studied briefly with painter Gerald Curtis Delano. He began exhibiting his art work in 1946 and worked full time as an artist. He also served three years in the Army during World War II.

Peggy and Harold Samuels, Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
Patrick Lester, The Biographical Directory of Native American Painters

Biography from Blue Coyote Gallery
Considered by many to be the dean of traditional Navajo artists, Harrison Begay was born in November of 1917 in White Cone, Arizona.  He grew up in a family that herded sheep and goats for sustenance.  There was a famous trading post at Keams Canyon, north of his home, where Navajo families traded wool for foodstuffs and manufactured goods.  However most of what the Begay family needed was found or raised on their own land.  

When he was eight years old Begay left home to attend boarding school.  It was not until then that he heard English for the first time.  He returned home one year later.  Then in 1934, when he was seventeen, he entered the Santa Fe Indian School, which had been recently founded by Dorothy Dunn and Geromina Montoya.  Although only serving as supervisor for five years (1932-1937), Dunn had created an art education program at the school that eventually prove to be a major influence on young Indian artists including Begay for almost three generations.  Prior to the schools founding Navajo artists had no tribal tradition of painting.  Artists like Begay adopted the style taught by the school at the time which eventually became known as the "Studio Style.  In 1936, while a student of Dunn's, Begay painted Navajo Horse Race. He sold the work that same year to Charles Mc C. Reeve for twelve dollars. It is now in the collection of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.

Begay graduated from Santa Fe in 1939 and later studied architecture at Black Mountain College in North Carolina on a scholarship from the Indian Commission.  He served as a muralist in the Works Projects Administration, a major program that hired artists to create public works during the Depression.  Although the location of these murals is not known, beginning in 1939 Begay helped paint the famous murals that can still be seen at Maisel's Trading Post in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Harrison served for three years in the U.S. Army in Europe and Iceland during World War II.  Upon returning to civilian life he took the Navajo name "Haskay Yahne Yah", which translates in English to "Warrior who walked up to his enemy ".  He has made his living as an artist ever since.

In 1946, Begay received a purchase award at the first Indian Annual painting competition at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  This was one of the first and most prestigious competitions meant exclusively for Indian artists and was instrumental in promoting the fine art of Native Americans.  During the 1950s Tewa Enterprises in Santa Fe was established by Begay and others to make and sell reproductions of their artwork.  This was one of the first Indian-owned art reproduction businesses.

Because so many of his childhood and young adult years were spent off the reservation, Begay did not have a deep understanding of his religious and ceremonial heritage.  During the 1950s, however, while seeking a new creative stimulus, he was introduced to an early book on Navajo legends by the artist Don Perceval. This filled him with curiosity about traditional Navajo ceremonies, which became the subject of his paintings. Since then he has recorded a way of life that is thought by many to be vanishing.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of Begay's lifelong struggle with alcoholism has been the necessity to sell his work for far less than its value to meet immediate needs for money. This has kept prices for his work low overall.  Despite these difficulties Begay is still internationally recognized.  He has won many art awards including the Palmes de Academiques, a special comendation from the French government in 1954 for his contributions to the arts.  He has also won many awards in the Southwest, including first place at the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonies in 1967, 1969 and 1971 along with the Elkus Special Award at the Ceremonies in 1969.

His art is included in almost every exhibition and publication on Indian painting.  His works are in the permanent collections of major museums all over the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the American Indian in New York City and the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.In 1990 Begay was invited to Japan to show his work. He took forty-five works and sold them within three weeks.  His work has been compared to oriental painting (Bucklew, 1967), which may explain its popularity with the Japanese.  In 1995 Begay received the Native American Masters Award from the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona

Now in his 80's, Harrison still paints a couple of hours a day despite failing eyesight.  Currently he is living in Greasewood, Arizona, near his birthplace.


Biography from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery
Harrison Begay or Haskay Yahne Yah (Warrior Who Walked Up to His Enemy)was born in White Cone, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation in 1917 or sometime around then.  He's never been sure about the date.  His parents were Black Rock and Zonnie Tachinie Begay.  His mother died when he was seven, and soon after he was sent off to government boarding school at Fort Wingate where he heard English spoken for the first time.  After a year he ran away from school to return home where he studied by himself and herded sheep.  At seventeen he entered the recently founded Santa Fe Indian School and studied art under Dorothy Dunn.

Until the school was founded, Navajo artists had no tribal tradition of painting, so what Harrison learned was later considered "studio style".  Students were taught to place smoothly brushed forms flat on the picture plane.  In 1936, Begay painted Navajo Horse Race at the school and sold the piece to Charles Mc C. Reeve for twelve dollars.   It is now in the Southwest Museum connection in Los Angeles.

When he graduated from Santa Fe Indian School as salutatorian in 1939, Harrison went on to study architecture at Black Mountain College in North Carolina on a scholarship from the Indian Commission.   He also created murals for the WPA during the Depression before spending three years in the Army during World War II.  He served nder General Dwight Eisenhower and also participated in the Battle of Normandy.

When he was released from the Army, Harrison spent a brief time in Colorado studying with Gerald Curtis Delano.  He received a purchase award at the first Indian Annual Painting Competition at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Upon returning home to Arizona in 1947, he resumed his painting career in earnest and eventually became one of the most famous of all Navajo painters.

He created Tewa Enterprises during the 1950s in Santa Fe to make and sell reproductions of his and others artwork. Collectors enjoyed his subtle watercolors and silkscreened prints.  Since he spent so much time off the reservation growing up, he learned much later about traditional Navajo ceremonies from a book by artist Don Perceval.  This deepened understanding of his own heritage greatly influenced Begay's work from that time on.

In 1954 Harrison was awarded the Palmes de Academiques, a special commendation from the French government, for his contributions to the arts.  Much recognition and many awards were presented Begay over the years.  In 1995 he was awarded the Native American Masters Award from the Heard Museum in Phoenix,Arizona.  Works from his 75-year career are in permanent museum collections around the world including the following:

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum
The Museum of Western Art
Desert Caballeros Western Museum
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
Great Plains Art Museum
Smithsonian Institute
Philbrook Museum of Art
Southwest Museum, Pasadena
Gilcrease Museum

Still painting in his 90s, Begay was awarded the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Southwestern Association of Indian Artists, organizers of the annual Santa Fe Indian Art Market.  His portrait was featured in the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of the American Indian in 2004.

1. The Artists Blue Book by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, (Editor)
2. Davenport's Art Reference:The Gold Edition No1999 by Ray Davenport
3. Who Was Who in American Art by Peter Hastings Falk (editor)
4. Philbrook Museum of Art, Handbook to the Collections
5. Indian Art in America by Frederick Dockstader
6. American Indian Painting by Dunn, Dorothy
7. Native American Painting: Selections from the Museum of the American Indian, by Fawcett, David M., and Lee A. Callander
8. Peggy and Harold Samuels, Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
9. Patrick Lester, The Biographical Directory of Native American Painters
10. Indigenous Research Center
11. Encyclopedia of World Biography on Harrison Begay

Biography from Adobe Gallery
Harrison Begay (Haskay Yah Ne Yah, Warrior Who Walked Up To His Enemy), to his knowledge, was born in 1914,  approximately fourteen miles west of present-day Greasewood, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation at a place known as Whitecone.  His date of birth is often cited as a few years later, however, there are no records and Harrison prefers the year 1914.

When he was a boy of seven years, his mother died and soon after that he was sent off to government boarding schools. As he grew older he decided to study art in Santa Fe where an art school was organized by the government in the early 1930s.

From 1934 until about 1940 he attended this school under Dorothy Dunn.  Following art school, Harrison Begay attended college and then enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II.  Serving under General Dwight Eisenhower, Harrison Begay did not have much opportunity to pursue his painting.  Soon after his discharge and return to Arizona he was able to begin once more his study of art.

Then in the 1960s he again met General Eisenhower at the annual Ceremonials in Gallup, New Mexico.  At that time Harrison Begay presented General Eisenhower with one of his fine paintings which is in a permanent collection in Washington, D.C.

"Begay's paintings have exerted greater influence on Navajo artists than any other person. His work is internationally known." -Snodgrass 1968.

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About  Harrison Begay

Born:  1914 - White Cone, Arizona
Died:   2012 - Gilbert, Arizona
Known for:  genre-Indian, wildlife, and mural painting, silkscreen