First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 22

CREATION STORY Navajo Origin Narratives in the Paintings of Harrison Begay and Gerald Nailor By Jennifer McLerran, PhD S O MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about Studio Style painting that it seems there is little left to say. Developed and taught by non-Native Santa Fe Indian School teacher Dorothy Dunn from 1932 to 1937 and then perpetuated by Dunn’s student Gerónima Cruz Montoya (Ohkay Owingeh), who taught at the school until 1961, Studio Style painting was enor- mously popular and profitable well into the mid-20th century. Since then, it has been castigated as a formulaic “strait- jacket” or “cookie cutter” style. While, at the same time, paintings by Dunn’s most successful students continue to be coveted by collectors and fetch healthy market prices. Some believe Dunn’s proscriptive teaching method was beneficial to the artists she taught, but others have seen her instruction as a well-intended but ultimately colonialist imposition of non-Native cultural values and criteria of excellence. This debate has generated a significant body of scholarship that helps us understand how the mechanisms of colonialism operate in the aesthetic realm, but it has obscured other important aspects of Studio School artists’ work that may allow us to gain a deeper under- standing of such processes. Focusing on artists’ conformance to Dunn’s pedagog- ical approach obfuscates other aspects of Studio School students’ work that may lead to a heightened understanding of 20 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM above Navajo sandpainting decorations in the lobby of the El Navajo Hotel, Gallup, New Mexico, ca. 1920, Photo: Fred Harvey Co., collection of the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico, negative #052154. Image courtesy of the Palace of the Governors. opposite, top Gerald Nailor Sr. (Navajo, 1917–1952), The Sand Painter, 1952, gouache on paper, 15 × 11 in. unframed, collection of the Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma, L2007.0542. Image courtesy of the Philbrook Museum of Art. opposite, below Navajo Indians who took part in dedication of El Navajo Hotel, Gallup, New Mexico, 1923. Photo: Edward Kemp, collection of the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico, negative #151554. Image courtesy of the Palace of the Governors. how these artists were able to resist the totalizing effects of colonialism. When examining each artist’s works within the context of their own aesthetic and cultural value systems—which varied significantly from tribe to tribe—Studio School artists’ work yields insights that cannot be gained from focusing only on the effects of Dunn’s teaching method. Studio School artists hailed mostly from Pueblo communities, but other groups were also represented in Dunn’s classes. Plains, Apache, and Navajo students attended and brought their cultural and aesthetic value systems with them. Perhaps the best known of the Studio Style artists are those from the Hopi mesas and Rio Grande Pueblos. Standouts among this group are Fred Kabotie (Hopi) and Pablita Velarde (Santa Clara Pueblo). While they enjoyed signif- icant recognition during their lifetimes, Navajo artists trained at the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) are possibly less well known today than their Pueblo class- mates. There are multiple reasons for the relative obscurity of many Studio School painters, which are beyond the scope of this article, but they include early deaths of a number of the artists, some students’ abandonment of artistic aspirations after graduation, and changing artistic tastes. This essay focuses on two Navajo artists, Harrison Begay (1917–2012) and Gerald Nailor Sr. (1917–1953). Gerald Nailor died quite young but in his short