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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.