A guest artist shares his native engraving with UM students | Arts + Culture
According to Marwin Begaye, when the Navajo deities created man, they prayed to the cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. From each direction, a different bird appeared to the gods. The north produced the hummingbird. The twinkling lights of the Northern Lights stuck to the hummingbird’s feathers, which explains the iridescent red and green the bird is known for.
Begaye, 52, uses the art of printmaking to share the stories he grew up hearing on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.
“All the prints refer to my relationship with landscape and culture, especially cultural stories,” he said.
Last week, the University of Oklahoma professor came to UM to share his knowledge and insights with art students as part of the MATRIX Press Guest Artist Program.
An art form of replication, engraving allows Begaye to produce dozens of copies of the same piece, which can then be modified with different colors and patterns. A piece he created with students while at UM depicted the hummingbird story.
The bottom of the coin is blue, reminiscent of both reflective water and the Milky Way. The deep red and yellow in the center represent morning, leading to a purple dawn on top, all with the glowing hummingbird in the center, its head surrounded by a halo of light.
“I try to bring these stories that I grew up with into a contemporary setting,” Begaye said. “That’s what stories are for.”
Begaye has been practicing engraving for 30 years now. He got into the craft while attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, mostly by accident.
“There was a workshop for these visiting Australian artists, and they literally just needed hot bodies, people to fill the seats,” Begaye said. “They said, ‘We’re going to give you lunch, pretend you’re making art. Of course, my curiosity grew from there.
A quick look through Begaye’s art portfolio would soon reveal a common theme: he loves birds. Herons, cormorants, magpies, crows – all these feathered creatures are featured in a variety of his prints. The reason, again, has to do with Begaye’s Navajo heritage.
“Birds are the animals that can be both in the air and on the ground,” he said. “They are the messengers between us and heaven. This is why feathers are so important in Navajo cultures and rituals.
Beyond the subjects of the prints, other aspects relate to Begaye’s childhood. Each bird appears in front of an intricately patterned background. Begaye said the backgrounds are meant to be reminiscent of the rugs her grandmother used to weave, whether reflected across the sparkling water or the endless sky.
Despite the deeply personal narrative behind each piece, Begaye does not dwell on them for long.
“I’m always on to the next thing,” he said. “If you pick a piece you like the most, you’re stuck with that image – I’m too restless. Even while the students were working on these prints, I was in the back, creating more ideas in my head As I mix the colors and see how they print, I think of the next colors and patterns.
During his three-day stay, Begaye and the art students created a total of 100 prints. Half of the works belong to Begaye, and the other half will remain at the University with MATRIX.
MATRIX Press has been on the UM art scene for over 20 years now. Founded by UM Printmaking Division Head James Bailey in 1998, the organization has brought 24 different artists of national and international renown to the University.
According to Bailey, the opportunities to work with these craft masters is what helps students fully understand the art form.
“Some of these students didn’t do a lot of printmaking,” Bailey said. “So it’s a very good opportunity to immerse yourself in it with the help of an expert.”
Of these 24 artists, half are of Aboriginal origin.
“A lot of artists that I look up to came through the University of Montana,” Begaye said. “It’s a bit like the who’s who of the Aboriginal art scene. I am proud to finally be part of this crew.
Printmaking is alive and well at UM, but it tends to be forgotten in the art scene, Begaye said.
“When people think of art, they think of painting and sculpture,” he said. “Prints slip through the cracks. It is not a singular and unique thing. Prints work with multiples…and sometimes because of that, those pieces are considered lesser.
However, this does not prevent Begaye from emphasizing its importance.
“Many cultures have used engraving to challenge information,” he said. “It’s to spread the revolution and the underground books. It is a very democratic art form. Comparing painting to printmaking is like a person using a fax machine to send a message versus using social media. Printmaking is the social media of the art world. It’s for everyone.
Begaye’s favorite part of working with MATRIX, as well as teaching at his university, is sharing the importance of printmaking with students.
“At their age, they still float. They’re not attached to one narrative, and it gives them a chance to develop their own – to find their own stories. I love being in the room when they do,” he said.