The Sand Painter

In our rented Outback, we glide in awe through the New Mexico deserts and mountains, a treasure trove of southwestern American history, reveling in the jewel-toned landscape that fades from reds to purples, to browns to yellows and beyond. Eyes feasting on the constantly changing scenery from Albuquerque to Farmington, we are certain our journey takes us through artist Georgia O’Keefe’s outdoor laboratory. Settling into our bed-and-breakfast on the cliff-size banks of the San Juan River in Farmington, we view in awe the cottonwood trees turned November yellow that frame the cascading river outside our room’s picture window.

The next day we drive a few miles north to Hogback Mountain Trading Post/Pawn Shop located in a small nondescript building on the edge of Navajo territory. The shop’s fourth-generation proprietor spends a good deal of time sharing stories behind the displays of native art work, artifacts, handiwork and the artists that created them. The smell of leather draws our attention to a banister surrounding a loft above us hung with rows of saddles. He explains they belong to native cowhands that pawn them after roundups and rodeos for safekeeping over the winter, a virtually free storage service. He narrates the history of handmade rugs and turquoise jewelry on consignment from his fellow tribe members and a collection of not-for-sale arrowheads on display in a glass case.

His most engaging story is about a Navahjo artist/friend who creates the intricate “sand art” that caught our attention the moment we entered the post. Using indigenous sand as a medium, the artist crafts cultural designs and colorful regional landscapes glued on plywood. The shop owner tells us, “I arranged a showing of his work at a well-known gallery in San Francisco. The morning of the exhibit, we loaded several of his ‘paintings’ in my van and headed west. The drive that normally takes four hours lasted twice as long because every time he spotted sand or rocks in colors he could use in his artwork, we had to stop long enough for him to gather the materials. So, we arrived at the gallery with the van loaded down with rocks and sand but too late to arrange his ‘sand art’ works for the evening showing.”

Please tell us about your own encounters with local artists, or artists you’ve met on your own journeys across the U.S. and other countries.