Daniel Begay sits in his Nob Hill studio, a blue bucket of damp clay by his feet beneath his daughter’s first bear painting taped to the window. A computer screen blinks on the opposite side of the room.
The award-winning Santa Clara/Navajo potter combines both cultures within his deeply carved, stone polished and traditionally hand-coiled and fired designs.
Begay will be selling his work at the 99th Santa Fe Indian Market this weekend. For the first time, this year’s market will be a ticketed event, creating revenue for the nonprofit organization. Artists will be selling pottery, paintings, carvings, baskets, textiles and jewelry during the two-day event, with music, dancing and a fashion show on the Plaza. Organizers are projecting about 60,000 visitors and more than 650 artists.
When he isn’t molding and shaping clay, Begay works at the University of New Mexico in American Indian Student Services. The artist holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting and marketing and finance. An Acoma Pueblo pot sits on his shelf, a gift from a grateful student.
Recognizing he was the only person left in his family’s generation making pottery fueled his passion for clay. He learned from both his father Harrison Begay Jr. and his mother Marie.
Tipping an unfired pot toward himself atop some foam padding, Begay incised a ring around the neck with an X-Acto knife.
“We go through blades like crazy,” he said. “When I was a kid, I used to have little cutout templates” for the designs.
Today he pencils his motifs on the pot’s surface before carving. The figures and shapes echo both pueblo and Navajo culture.
“The bear is pretty prominent in Native American culture,” he said. “It’s a figure that represents strength, but we also do some of the Navajo deities.”
Yei figures sprout feathers. A flurry of crosses symbolize balance; the triangles are pueblo kilts. Swirls stand in for water. Dragonflies flutter; turtles crawl, kiva steps climb.
Begay wrapped a tape measure around the pot’s circumference. At 24 inches in width, he can divide its proportions into sixths to compartmentalize his designs.
The artist gathers his clay at Santa Clara, often with the help of his mother. At home, he mixes it with volcanic ash, sifting and grinding, then mixing it with water.
“My daughters love doing it because they get to play in the – they call it mud,” he said with a smile.
He hand-coils the clay in to ropes his daughters call “snakes.” He must be sure to fuse the coils lest an air pocket trigger a firing explosion. Then he allows the clay to dry to “leather hard” and smooths it with sandpaper. He polishes his work with stones given to him by his father after covering the piece with a fine clay slip.
Begay has been helping his father at Indian Market since he was 10 years old. He’s hoping to finish about 11 pots for this year’s market. He’ll also show his work at Santa Fe’s King Galleries at 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 20.
He sometimes thinks of making pottery full-time, but he isn’t quite ready to make the break.
“This is a very great release,” he said. “I let go of a lot of stress here.”
“I think it’s in the lineage; it’s part of the tradition,” he continued. “None of my siblings do pottery; I’m the only grandchild. When my first pot exploded on me, I still can remember the sounds. Five to 10 years ago, I came to the realization that I’m the only one in the family who does it. I just think of it as something divine.”
For now, he cannot visit the pueblo because it is closed due to the pandemic. He’s been firing his work on the Navajo Nation.
“There’s times when I absolutely miss it,” he said. “We’ll hear something out of nowhere, and we’ll say that reminds me of home. I miss being able to see the stars.”