'I don't believe in putting myself in a box' - Albuquerque Journal

‘I don’t believe in putting myself in a box’

(buffalo/bison): “Art Is Medicine,” Roberta Begaye, 36×48 inches. (Courtesy of Roberta Begaye)

Roberta Begaye weaves paintings in layers.

The Diné (Navajo) EMS worker/firefighter spins the traditional weaving designs of her grandmother with reflections on her life, culture and religious beliefs.

She calls her style “Contemporary Indigenous.”

Roberta Begaye, works at her studio while preparing for Winter Indian Market. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Begaye’s work will hang in Santa Fe’s Winter Indian Market at La Fonda on Saturday, Nov. 20 through Sunday, Nov. 21. About 170 artists will sell pottery, painting, jewelry, weavings and more.

Begaye’s broad stylistic range extends from colorful representational images of animals to abstract expressionist works incorporating graffiti. She begins each painting with a short prayer blessing the blank canvas.

The Albuquerque artist credits the years she spent with her maternal grandmother on the Navajo Nation as a creative catalyst.

“I remember when I was sitting by her one time,” Begaye said. “She grabbed this little book and her pen and she drew this cornstalk. It was a simple line drawing. It was the most perfect drawing I’ve ever seen. One day, I hope to draw like that.”

Born in Fort Defiance, Arizona, Begaye was raised in Kayenta, Arizona.

(hummingbird): “Prayers, Love Beauty,” Roberta Begaye 30×40 inches. (Courtesy of Roberta Begaye)

She has doodled since childhood, but never took her work seriously, giving it away until about four years ago.

Her life changed after her fiancee asked her to paint a portrait of Muhammad Ali.

“One day I was at work and she said, ‘I have a surprise for you,’ ” Begaye said. “She said, ‘I started a Facebook page for you.’ ”

By 2017, Begaye was taking her artwork seriously, entering the Santa Fe Indian Market.

“I will always remember a specific powerful moment in June 2017, right after a successful art show,” she stated. “My hands had a buzzing feeling. I looked down at my palms and finally acknowledged the Creator’s gift I was given. This wasn’t just doodling.”

Her acrylic paintings incorporate portraits of buffalo, hummingbirds and horses in vibrant colors. Inspired by her grandmother’s Wide Ruins textile patterns, she also creates imagery incorporating that classic geometry. Sometimes she ventures into pure abstraction, as she did in “K,” which won her an Honorable Mention Ribbon at the 2019 Santa Fe Indian Market.

“I don’t believe in putting myself in a box,” Begaye said. “I always want to push myself.”

Begaye left the reservation to go to school and become a paid firefighter in 1999.

“This is my calling; this is where I am,” she said. “I knew when I was in the fourth grade. We had a career field day.”

An ambulance showed up, along with the police and firefighters. Begaye hopped into the ambulance.

“I sat in the jump seat and I looked around and I knew I just wanted to be in EMS to serve my people,” she said.

Her career choice meant defying some traditional Diné prohibitions.

“The Fight For Freedom,” Roberta Begaye, 36x36x1.5 inches, acrylic and aerosol on canvas. (Courtesy of Roberta Begaye)

“It was something I struggled with because of the taboo of dealing with death,” Begaye said. “It was a huge struggle because of the way I grew up. I just wanted to help my people.”

Begaye has worked as a firefighter with Kirtland Air Force Base Fire Department since 2002.

She recently combined both of her passions by founding Compassion Uprising, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing food and supplies to elders and impoverished parents in remote areas of the reservation. Sales of her artwork support the charity.

She never sketches before dipping her brush in color.

“Before each painting I always offer tobacco or sage as an offering,” she said. “I always want to have positive energy. Every piece I create is a part of me.”

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