2013-01 Red Slip Pot with Sikyatki Design

Even in a pottery collection this large, this is an extraordinary pot, which, to an unusual degree, reflects the unique circumstances of its maker. Thus, I will discuss the short life of Nathan Begaye in some detail before turning to an analysis of the pot itself.

Nathan’s Biography:

To say that Nathan Begaye was a very complicated person understates both his origins and his personality, beginning with the date of his birth. A card that came with pot 2013-01 cites his D.O.B. as 9/9/58, which agrees with the U.S. Government Social Security Death Index, which reports his death on 12/21/10, at age 52. Wade also cites 1958 as Nathan’s birth year (Wade and Cooke 2012:225). Other references (McFadden and Taubman 2002:33; NMAI 2005:81, and Trimble 2007:134) cite 1959 as his birth year. The most authoritative and detailed discussion of Nathan and his art says he was born in 1969, which is at variance with everything else in that discussion (Clark 2006:21). I assume that 1969 is just a misprint of 1959.  His obituary cites his birth date as September 9, 1958.

Except as noted, this review of Nathan Begaye’s biographical details is based on Clark (2006:20-37) and a biographical sketch written by Robert Nichols and available at his gallery (Nichols, on file).

Nathan’s father was an initiated Navajo with access to much of the tribal knowledge, and was from the Tuba City and Copper Mine Canyon areas of the reservation. Nathan’s mother was Hopi. She was raised in Meonkopi (a Hopi village just two miles east of Tuba), and her family were clan leaders. Shortly after Nathan’s birth, his parents moved to California and thereafter he “saw little” of them. For the first four years of his life, Nathan was raised by his maternal grandparents at Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation, about 40 miles east of Tuba. After that, he seems to have been passed around to various Navajo aunts and uncles and grew up in Tuba City. Tuba was founded by Mormons, bought from them by the U.S. Government, and is now part of the Navajo Nation. Historically and culturally, it is a complicated place to be from. Moreover, there is a strong historical conflict between the Hopi and Navajo people. Nathan was schooled by his relatives in Native culture, but he never was initiated into either his mother’s or his father’s tribe. From what I can tell, his upbringing was culturally rich but personally chaotic and isolated from the dominant Anglo world.

According to Robert Nichols, “Nathan was always withdrawn” and by the age of 10 had retreated into frequent day dreams and a hobby of collecting pieces of pottery from nearby ruins: “In one particularly influential dream, the setting sun and sky were bright red … [and Nathan wandered through an ancient Hopi village. In] … one house with a light was an old woman … surrounded by many beautiful ancient pots,” writes Nichols. He continues, quoting Nathan: “As I walked in she picked one up and handed it to me. Then I woke up. I know I had to make pottery.”

“Because neither his parents nor his grandparents were potters, Nathan learned on his own” (Nichols). Apparently, he began making pottery by the age of 11. “His precocious talent soon started to attract attention…. At fourteen (1972) he left Tuba City and was sent to The IAIA [The Institute of American Indian Arts high school in Santa Fe] to study ceramics” (Clark 2006:21).

A card that came with pot 2013-01 says it was “made about 1973.” The words “Nathan B/ Tuba City” are written with white paint on the bottom of the jar. Thus, it seems that the pot was made during this period of his life, though the extraordinary quality of the potting and design seems close to impossible for a fourteen-year-old child.  By 1986, Nathan was dating his pottery, and adding a cloud symbol which is another indication that pot 2013-01 was made in an earlier era.  As an adult he lived in Phoenix and Santa Fe, but he died back in Tuba City on December 21, 2010.

The ceramics department at IAIA was headed by his aunt, Otellie Loloma, “whom he remembers with great fondness. Although she was a very traditional Hopi, her pottery was stoneware that was thrown on a wheel and fired in a kiln” (Nichols).

(For a discussion of Otellie Loloma and her ceramic training, see 2011-09.)

According to Nichols, in 1986 when Nathan was about 28 he used a SWIA scholarship to attend Alfred University, which was the leading ceramics program in the country (Clark 2006:23). This was his first experience in the Anglo world. There were no other Indians at Alfred and Nathan felt culturally isolated. Having never met a “real” Native American, his classmates thought that he was perhaps Korean. (About 40 years earlier, Otellie and Charles Loloma had attended the same program at Alfred. See 2011-09 for their experience.) Typical of an academic ceramic studio, the students and faculty at Alfred worked together and shared information. Some of the techniques and symbols that Nathan used were clan knowledge and could not be shared with nontribal people. Apparently, his fellow students interpreted his reluctance to share information to Nathan being “standoffish.” In one poignant case, Nathan created a raku glaze that his faculty mentor had been trying to create but Nathan refused the faculty request for the recipe (Clark 2006:23). It was not a good time.

        Nathan (King Galleries)

After his experience at Alfred, Nathan apparently devoted himself to his pottery full-time. He had homes in both Santa Fe and Phoenix. Clark notes that Nathan mentored Diego Romero—an innovative potter who lives at Cochiti Pueblo near Santa Fe (2006:104). In a phone conversation Robert Nichols noted that the two men shared a studio at Cochiti. Nathan’s struggles with alcohol, diabetes, and drugs seem to have taken over his life and he mostly stopped producing pottery by 2005, five years before his death on December 21, 2010. (See the comments of Robert Nichols and Charles King, below.)

Jar 2013-01:
Of the more than 500 Hopi pots in this collection, jar 2013-01 is the thinnest. That title had previously belonged to Jake Koopee for plate 1995-14, but the walls of this Begaye pot are strikingly thinner: so thin that it seems like you can feel one finger against another when placed on opposite sides of the lip. The jar is fairly large for a Hopi pot, but weights just over two pounds. Carrying it around, I find myself glancing at my hands to confirm the jar is still there; there is not sufficient weight to convince my hands that they are still holding the pot.

The form of 2013-01 is a classic bulbous shape with the neck rising about 1.5” above the body. The lower half of the pot is somewhat conical, which gives the overall look of the pot a light, upward thrust. The upper half slopes directly toward the neck, which creates a wide, flat surface upon which most of the decoration is drawn. Seen directly from the bottom, almost no decoration is visible. The edges of the lip are tinged golden by the heat of an outdoor firing. The outside of the vessel is burnished to an exceptionally smooth surface, as is the first inch or so of the inside of the neck. The inside of the pot has also been sanded smooth—though not burnished—with the inside bottom half of the jar smoother and thinner than the top.

Clark writes, “…as deft a painter as he is, form remains the paramount concern to Begaye. This is unusual in Indian Pottery, where decoration generally has more aesthetic currency … and weight” (2006:24).  (Karene Charley [2007] would dispute this assertion.)

Except for the neck of the jar, the entire external surface of the vessel has been slipped with yellow clay that turned a deep maroon-red during firing.

The painting on 2013-01 is basically monochromatic, although much of the black design is outlined in white (kaolin) clay. A black band with a line break segregates the undecorated neck from the painted surface. Below this line is a second red line encircling the jar that is formed from the red underglaze showing through and below this is the major decoration on the top half of the jar. There are no lower framing lines.

The motif contains three major elements; this pattern is repeated twice.
1) Most linear of these elements is a crook forming two rain cloud steps. The interior of the crook is filed with parallel lines, two crosshatched areas, and two wavy lines (lightening?).
2) To the left of the crook is a roughly triangular area formed of geometric shapes, including a three-stepped rain cloud and two small external crooks done with kaolin white paint. Emerging from this triangular area are two tail feathers that incorporate semi-circular “split cloud” designs.
3) To the left of this triangular section is a linear element that emerges at roughly right angles to the mouth of the jar. The body of this section is filled with a pattern of diamonds (perhaps representing fields?) and ends with a version of the Nampeyo eagle-tail design with emphatic curvilinear wings and tails reduced to mere lines. Finally, emerging from the left of this linear element just above the field of diamonds, is a thin triangular (feather?) design composed mostly of small white crooks. As noted, this three-part pattern of symbols is repeated a second time on jar 2013-01.

Rain clouds, prayer feathers, the crook flow of water and cornfields: by definition, symbols might mean something very different to an artist (or nothing at all) than to an observer. If my interpretation of these symbols has any weight, the pot is a visual prayer for rain, good crops, and plenty: Siitalpuva, “the land brightened with flowers.” (For an interpretation of these symbols, see Patterson 1994, and Hays-Gilpin 2006.) Overall, the design is a reinterpretation of Sikyatki motifs using common iconography assembled and manipulated into an unusual format. As innovative as 2013-01 is, it is about as traditional as Nathan ever got.

You begin to understand some of Nathan’s genius given his use of color on this jar. One’s first impression of the pot is “red,” which sets up a sharp contrast with the basically black design. The sharp contrast between these two colors is muted a bit by the use of the thin white paint—sort of like the role of garnish on an appealing entrée. Moreover, this rich painted surface highlights the unpainted neck, with a final flourish provided by the subtle golden tinge of lip of the jar. That’s a lot of rich contrast to attract an eye: a visual feast.

Robert Nichols, many years before he saw an image of jar 2013-01, offers an interpretation of Begaye’s painting that is startling close to the design on this jar, including the red slip, the large undesigned areas, the white kaolin edging, and lack of a bottom framing line:

“Nathan uses traditional materials and techniques that he interprets in innovative –modern—ways…The open space on a pot is the sky itself. In fact (Nathan) says ‘If a pot didn’t have a border the design would go on forever.’ Through his painting you should ‘feel energy –lightening and thunder.’ Nathan’s red pots, which relate back to the red sky of that first (childhood) dream, often have the decoration outlined in white—the white border of clouds with the sun behind them.”

Nathan’s Aesthetic:

All the commentary about Nathan express a sense of awe watching the talent of a prodigy unfold; there are echoes of Mozart writing his first symphony at age 8.

Speaking of the range of Nathan’s work, Clark says:

“Begaye’s career has proven to be anything but traditional, although anyone unversed in the tradition might not spot the fact. He has not confined himself to one idea or style. He has not followed the Sikyatki (Revival) style…Unpredictable and seemingly erratic, he has worked in may dissimilar styles and there is no way of guessing where his next body of work will take him….this freewheeling play is … his signature; that of an open-minded Postmodernist Indian potter….”

In the years after I bought pot 2013-01 I have acquired nine other pots by Nathan.  If you use the “Artist” index on this website to call up photographs of all the Nathan Begaye pots in this collection, I think you will be struck by the great variety of forms and decorative styles that mark Nathan’s short career.  Given that he did not come from a potting family and left no prodigy,  he is not well-remembered by the pottery market.  Those who do not remember him are missing the work of genius.

And Ed Wade comments:

“I fervently believe that Nathan Begaye was one of the most experimental, creative, and ingenious artists to emerge in the field of Native American Art…He experimented with a wide variety of traditional and commercial clay slips, firing techniques, vessel forms, functions, and compositions, as well as postmodernist themes of high versus low culture, satire, irony and conditional truth. Yet, even when he was breaking traditional Hopi pottery conventions, his core beliefs were traditional”

Pot 2013-01 in this collection seems to be an early Begaye product that perfectly fits Robert Nichols’ interpretation but does not reflect the “postmodernist” innovations seen in Nathan’s later work, which could be far more innovative, even erotic. For a sense of the range of this work, see the examples published by Clark (2006: 26-37). For other examples, see Jacka and Jacka (1988:86); Schaaf (1998:33-35); McFadden and Taubman (2002:33); NMAI (2005:81); Trimble (2007:134) and Wade and Cooke (2012: 224-227).

Summing up his review of Begaye’s career, Clark both quotes the artist and injects his own observations:

“Very much the loner, Begaye claims no heroes amongst other potters: ‘I do not compete with others. I compete with myself. It is my fierce inner war, one that is waged constantly between a liberal artist and a conservative Indian, between my male and female sides, between fire and clay, that drives me forward.’ And it is a difficult and at times punishing conflict. Begaye is a man of great complexity, not just trying to find his way as a gay man and an unconventional artist, but also wrestling with the dual curses of alcoholism and diabetes”

Appropriately, Clark gives Nathan the final word:

“…As an artist you have to move forward to replenish your spirit. I know no other way” (2006:25).

I spoke with Robert Nichols of Santa Fe about Nathan Begaye on 2/13/13. He said: “Nathan was an amazing, amazing potter…. He attended high school in Santa Fe at The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) and his teachers talked about him being an amazing talent.” He added an “e” to his name to distinguish himself from all the Navajos named Begay. Very thin walls are characteristic of Nathan’s work, Nichols noted. Encouraged by Dick Howard, Robert gave Nathan his first show about 1987 and by then Nathan was dating his pottery. Robert had not seen a pot marked “Tuba City” before, so pot 2013-01 may indeed be an early pot. As far as Robert knew, Nathan never used a wheel. “He fired outdoors using sheep manure and claimed that gave his pots a different look than if he had used cattle manure or wood.” “This is a classic example of his work,” Nichols added, having looked at photographs of pot 2013-01. According to Nichols, Nathan’s health issues became so severe that he became a patient in several rehabilitation facilities and stopped making pottery at least five years before his death in December 2010.

Charles King  Galleries says of Nathan:

“Nathan Begaye was a unique innovator among Pueblo and Navajo potters. His ethnic connection to both Hopi and Navajo let his work flow between the two distinctive styles and yet find their own unique space. His work used traditional designs, forms, and techniques, yet somehow appeared very modern. Nathan was one of the innovators of Native pottery.”

Charles and I had a discussion about Nathan on 2/16/13. Nathan had a home in Phoenix and would often walk into the King Gallery to sell his work. Because of proximity and because Charles is appreciative of innovative work, the two men knew each other well. Charles’s impression is that Nathan lived in a conflicted world. With a Navajo medicine man as a father but a Hopi mother, Nathan did not feel he fit into either world. He was gay in a world ready to reject such folk. Had Nathan been able to control his personal demons, Charles noted, “He would have been one of the most remarkable potters working today.” Charles was not surprised by the thinness of pot 2013-01: “His pots were remarkably thin. You are not the first person to remark on this.” Although Nathan brought in a few pots to the King Gallery in the couple of years before he died, his real production ended about five years before his death. “He was a big, heavy man,” Charles noted, “but the last time I saw him I don’t think he weighed 100 pounds. It was very sad.” I asked Charles about the inaccuracies that I had found in Clark’s account of Begaye. Apparently, Clark only interviewed Nathan one or two times and, given Nathan’s wicked sense of humor, some of his statements he made might have been hyperbole or simply a joke. Thus, he might have subtracted ten or 11 years from his age and he is very likely to both have known Rick Dillingham and have called him a friend.