Forbes – Shonto Begay: ‘Art Saves Lives’

By Chad Scott | April 17, 2021

“Art saves lives.” –Shonto Begay.

For Diné (Navajo) artist Shonto Begay (b. 1954), that’s more than a figure of speech. It’s autobiographical.

“I was what they call a generation of the walking traumas, because of the 13 boys that I grew up with very closely, there’s only three of us alive,” Begay told

Begay’s personal history reaches back into an era difficult to imagine in a contemporary world.

He was born in a ceremonial Navajo hogan–a sacred home–to a mother who was a traditional Navajo rug weaver from the Bitter Water Clan. His father was a medicine man born to the Salt Clan. Begay grew up in the 1950s as one of 16 kids, herding sheep in the cinematically beautiful rock cliffs, canyons and chapparal-covered mountains of Kletha Valley, deep inside the Navajo Nation in tiny Shonto, Arizona.

“Shonto” in Diné translates to “sunshine spring.”

It wasn’t his tribal upbringing which created “a generation of the walking traumas,” the “trauma” Begay experienced came in the form of the dehumanizing U.S. government run Indian Boarding Schools. In the abusive and tragic annals of American History, the Indian Boarding Schools stand as particularly inhumane. Native American children torn from their families and sent far away into forced white, euro-centric cultural assimilation camps.

“Kill the Indian, save the man” was the mantra of these institutions founded on white supremacy with that operating philosophy as their only guiding principle.

“It was a casualty,” Begay says of his time in the boarding schools. “Mentally, physically–it took a lot of lives. A sense of hopelessness. It was a brutal situation. It was a really brutal experience. I survived it and that’s why I do art. It keeps me from going to a place where I don’t want to go.”

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Solo exhibit:

Shonto Begay: New Works
Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery
Tucson, AZ
Opens: April 24 – May 8, 2021.                                                                                                                  An exhibit of new works to coincide with The Shonto Show at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. Mark Sublette is a trusted expert on Shonto’s art career, having represented his artwork for more than 20 years.

Shonto and Mark

Solo exhibit:

Shonto: Eyes of the World
The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
Santa Fe, NM
Exhibition Dates

Shonto Begay: Eyes of the World features the work of Navajo Neo-Impressionist artist Shonto Begay. Autobiographical in nature, his paintings visually narrate his connection to the Navajo landscape, personal histories, and cosmology. Shonto’s voice resonates throughout the exhibition, poetically complimenting individual artworks with in-depth storytelling and reflections on life, furthering the viewer’s understanding of art as an activity that creates objects of healing, beauty, and peace in a troubled world.

“My relationship with the Wheelwright Museum goes way back and deep. My father’s Diné prayer blessed this museum. The Wheelwright is guardian of our Diné Jish – the creative forces of scared visionaries,” Shonto says. “I am fortunate for my artwork to be in the Wheelwright Museum collection. My vision graces its walls with great validation.”

The striking beauty of the Dine’ land and culture meet the harsh realities of reservation life in Shonto: Eyes of the World, a solo exhibition featuring original paintings from the 1980s until present day. Autobiographical works tell the stunning story of boarding school life, bronco riding, heartfelt hippies, inspiring ancestors and the beautiful landscapes that fuel inspiration and the Navajo way of life, Hozho – walking in beauty. More than half the exhibit is from private collectors who purchased paintings in the past 30 years – most have never been shared with the public.

A separate gallery features the Wheelwright’s collection of Shonto ink (Bic pen) on paper drawings from the early 1990s depicting the Navajo legend creation story of the Hero Twins.