Ben Harjo Jr. – A Contemporary Traditionalist in Native American Art

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Ben Harjo Jr. – A Contemporary Traditionalist in Native American Art

Paintings Reflect Wit and Whimsey


Benjamin Harjo Jr. has often been called “The Picasso of Indian Art.”
Study his colorful, geometric-inspired paintings and it’s easy to see why that phrase is such a perfect description of his work.

His vivid, primary colors sparkle on the canvas and the unusual circles, lines and triangles that inform his paintings give viewers a distinctive definition of contemporary American Indian art.

Harjo, 69, is one of Oklahoma’s most revered Native American artists. Born in Clovis, New Mexico, Harjo moved to Oklahoma when he was 9-years-old and grew up on a farm in Byng, near the South Canadian River. He lived with his grandparents, two brothers and three cousins.
His fascinating career started with a childhood sketch pad.

Those humble notebooks were his early inspiration. They reflected his interest in cartooning and he sold his one-panel cartoons to the high school newspaper.

Now, his art is featured in some of the most prestigious galleries in the United States and around the world. He has shown his art in every major museum and gallery in Oklahoma. Abroad, his work has been displayed in France, Japan, Korea and Somalia.

Harjo envisioned a career in cartoon animation, only to enroll at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe in 1964, and discover their animation program no longer existed.
Some young artists might have found that a daunting disappointment. Harjo stayed anyway, savoring the company of fellow students, T. C. Cannon, Doug Hyde, Kevin Red Star, Bill Prokopiof and Earl Biss. Among his legendary instructors were the late Charles Loloma, Fritz Scholder, Allan Houser and Seymour Tubis, his mentor, who taught him printmaking. Harjo’s time was not wasted at the IAIA and he graduated in 1966.

The Vietnam conflict interrupted Harjo’s career path toward becoming a professional artist. When his tour of military duty was over in 1971, he enrolled at Oklahoma State University, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1974. He recalls his instructors there with great fondness: Dale McKinney, Dean Bloodgood, J. J. McVicker and Marty Avrett. In 2012, OSU inducted Harjo into its prestigious Alumni Hall of Fame.

It didn’t take long after graduating from OSU for Harjo to become recognized as an unusual artist who tells his stories in a captivating geometric, kaleidoscope style. Early in his career, viewers were excited by his brilliant colors, which played off each other, and the story-telling quality of his art.

Jim Halsey, a Tulsa country music promoter well known for representing Roy Clark, introduced Harjo to D. F. Henry, who had a mobile art gallery in Tulsa. She arranged an exhibit featuring Harjo and noted wood sculptor Willard Stone.

A major turning point in Harjo’s career was his marriage to Barbara Isaac, September 25, 1982. She determined, early in their marriage, she would manage his career, making it possible for him to devote full time to his art.

What Harjo brings to his paintings is a complex style that is both curiously clever and innovative. There’s a bit of mathematical equations, as well as Native American symbolism.

Robert Henry, Oklahoma City University president, said, “Native American Picasso is an apt description of Harjo and his art. His work is serious and sad, whimsical and humorous, terse and iconic. He’s also an Indian who is a cowboy and he’s taken his art to new heights.”

The late Oklahoma City philanthropist Jeanette Sias, an avid admirer of his art, once said, “He’s both complex and elusive. Sometimes it seems he’s only along for the journey.”
Her husband, Dick Sias, valued Harjo’s work so immensely, he commissioned him to design the label for his Joullian Vineyards wine, based in Carmel, Calif.

Diversity is the hallmark of his painting techniques and styles. Some work resembles intricate mosaics, perhaps inspired by traditional Seminole patchwork clothing. His pen and ink sketches reveal the influence of the cartoons he loved as a youth. Printmaking provides an avenue for Harjo to play with texture and subtler palettes. Humor is seen through his witty imagery or in clever titles he creates.

Harjo is as recognizable as his art. If you are searching for him at an art opening, look for the handsome, well-dressed Native American, wearing a smile and a jaunty beret. You’ve found Ben Harjo Jr.

As an artist, he has not limited himself to one media. He uses pencil, pen and ink, pastel, oil, acrylic, watercolor, gouache, and conte’ crayons. The tools in his art arsenal are equally as varied. Once an inquisitive collector inquired how he had painted such a painstaking, delicate figure and Harjo replied, “With the tip of a feather.” His miniature paintings are postage stamp portraits. He also is a skilled woodcrafter.

Commenting on his work, Harjo said, “It has always been my contention that one’s art speaks from the soul of the artist and remains viable and open to the influences of the artist’s environment. Forms, colors and movement keep it from stagnating and allow it to grow as the artist matures and develops. I feel my art covers a wide range of emotions, from serious to humorous. The colors I use radiate a sense of happiness and joy.”

As for the multiple inspirations that spark Harjo’s art, he reflects, “When you’re traveling down the highway, you see an image, whether it’s dirt on the back of a truck, a splat on a windshield, or two birds sitting by the side of the road picking at something. All those things have inspired me at some point in my creativity.”

He hopes when people look at his art, they have “warm feelings” for it.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then his paintings are worth 10,000 words. Ben Harjo has made a paradigm shift in the art world,” OCU’s Henry said of Harjo’s work.

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