Unknown photographer, “Harrison Begay sketching at Black Mountain College,” ca. 1940. Digital print from archival scan. Western Regional Archive, State Archives of NC.
Harrison Begay (b. 1917 Whitecone, Arizona – d. 2012 Gilbert, Arizona)
Harrison Begay was a Diné (Navajo) illustrator, painter, and printmaker specializing in silkscreen and watercolor. He studied art under Dorothy Dunn at the Santa Fe Indian School. Dunn’s instruction was defined by the philosophy of Winnebago painter Angel De Cora which enforced the idea that the cultural expression of Native artists should not be interfered with by European aesthetics and instruction. Angel De Cora and Dorothy Dunn therefore did not ask Native students to study subjects such as color theory, perspective, and life drawing.
When Begay was encouraged to apply to Black Mountain College, prominent figures in the Native American arts community formally expressed concern that the European teachings of artists like Josef Albers would influence Begay’s traditional aesthetics. Begay, however, was more interested in studying architecture, which he did from 1940-1941, though he did study with Albers and held a specific interest in contemporary art. Begay also taught Navajo during his time at the college, a course which raised suspicions by some due to the use of the Navajo language in classified transmissions of war. Begay later served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during WWII from 1942 to 1945. He would enjoy commercial and critical success throughout his life, becoming one of the most famous Diné artists of his time.
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