Navajo Printmaker Visits UM to Create Bird- and Pattern-Laden Artwork | Arts & Theater


Birds in flight or at rest atop “patterns within patterns” took shape in the University of Montana print shop.

Marwin Begaye, an award-winning artist, and the team at Matrix Press, a print shop located at the School of Visual and Media Arts, have spent the past week producing a series of new works.

“A lot of the models you see have a cultural reference for me,” he said. He’s a Navajo (Diné) from New Mexico, and “my biggest influence is my grandmother, who was a textile weaver.”

They can also be a test for itself. “Each of the backgrounds, I challenged myself? How do you make things happen like this?” he said. Or, “How big of a line can it go and hold the information, right?”

The birds, their cultural stories and these design elements all go through a process of “mixing and matching”.

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An associate professor of painting and printmaking at the School of Visual Arts at the University of Oklahoma, Begaye spent a week at the invitation of Matrix and the Missoula Art Museum. He works with Matrix students and staff, who help bring ideas to fruition.

Matrix director and UM art professor Jim Bailey said he has followed and admired Begaye’s work for years, and was a great guest because he works in both screen printing and landforms, which UM has classes for right now.

He loves Begaye’s concepts and how he “rethinks his native heritage and gives it a contemporary twist,” he said.

The scale of his woodcuts is also impressive, and he has developed a “genuine” technique he says, citing the sense of form, the modeling of objects and lighting, and the interplay between the rendering of birds and flattened bottoms.

With the new work, he has “a very strong, unusual and very dynamic sensitivity to color”.

The birds

Begaye brought with him transparencies and raw materials for prints of hummingbirds, magpies and crows. Other sheets bear designs he created drawing inspiration from many sources. There are Navajo rugs and weaving. He’ll go to powwows with a sketchbook and draw things he sees on badges and textiles, and bring them back to his studio. He and the team can arrange them in various combinations for screen prints.

He also brought examples of his award-winning woodcuts. He was awarded the title of “Best of Classification” in Painting, Drawing, Graphic Design and Photography in the competitive environment of the Indian market of Sante Fe in 2019.

Each bird and the designs that accompany it have stories and references that it has traced. In the case of the hummingbird silkscreen prints he made last week, the bird hovers in midair above layers of diamonds, stars and more.

Begaye decided to do a hummingbird while he’s here, as it’s the furthest north he’s traveled. The little bird plays an important role in a Navajo creation story – the deities prayed in the four directions, each becoming a bird. Facing north, a hummingbird descended that way and flew through the northern lights, gaining its color, he said.

The diamond and star shapes in his sky are an abstract form of Navajo patterns for the Milky Way, he said. The light blue is a nod to the water ripples and general rainfall during his visit.

He produced the rigid patterns using software and a laser cutter. They’re printed with a rainbow gradient, fading from yellow to peach to teal, then a deeper blue that felt wildly colorful against the inversion outside the studio windows.

One of his large woodcuts, measuring 36 by 24 inches, was made in honor of his grandfather and uncle, who were talking code during World War II.

The bird he chose for them, the American Kestrel, is “small but they are fierce and very territorial,” he says.

The dense patterns of his backgrounds are constructed from hundreds of short, tight marks, sometimes intended to create a shimmering effect like light on water or 1960s Op Art.

Although they seem daunting to complete, he said that on a summer day he could finish one in six hours.

Each entry in the series of years has its own set of meanings. In the case of the kestrel backdrop, its foundation stones are textiles.

“I take small elements of the Navajo rug,” he said, and then I enlarge them. They are Monster Slayer, an angry warrior, and Born-for-Water, a more prayerful and thoughtful warrior. You also see their weapon, the lightning bolt, as an arrow design.

Like much of his work, he included the four-pointed star. “The stars are everything to us. They tell us what season it is, when it’s time to plant, when it’s time to start traveling,” he said. To balance the ‘masculine energy’ in the room, the shape of the diamond also alludes to the idea of ​​’Mother Earth’.

Many birds are complemented by a halo. After looking at religious art, including Russian icons, he reflected on “how they portray their saints, and somehow bringing that information into my world. I put halos behind them, to assimilate them,” he said.

The collaboration

Beginning in 2016, with the help of successive Warhol Foundation grants, the Press and MAM began inviting Indigenous printmakers from across the United States to come to campus and work with staff and students. It is also funded by the Jim and James Dew Visiting Artist Fund.

The art has been exhibited at the Missoula Art Museum, either in solo shows or group shows. Prints are usually split 50-50 between Matrix and the artist. The students who participated also receive a draw and the press donates it to the MAM.

Brandon Reintjes, MAM’s senior curator, said his collection of contemporary American Indian art is “the most sought-after part of the collection and the one we get the most loan requests for.”

In the fall, Neal Ambrose-Smith, department head of the Institute of American Indian Arts, came to Missoula in tandem with an exhibit, “č̓ č̓en̓ u kʷes xʷúyi (Where Are You Going?)”, which was at the poster at the MAM. He created enough work while at The Matrix that a version of that show was exhibited at Salish Kootenai College.

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