Brothers near completion of mural series at Shiprock Youth Complex

Mike Easterling The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Navajo painter Eugene B. Joe said it would nice if the series of nine murals he and his brother James are painting on the interior walls of the new Shiprock Youth Complex wind up inspiring some of the young people who frequent the building to become artists themselves.

But it's more important for those youngsters to grasp the meaning of those paintings and perhaps just develop an appreciation for the role that art plays in Navajo culture, he said.

"We're having fun; we're having a good time," Eugene said last week as he and his brother continued work on the series they began March 23. "We're older now, and we're teaching our youth. ... They don't have to become artists. They just need to realize that Navajo art has a special place in their life."

Some of the messages featured in the murals apply directly to the stage of life many of the teenagers who take part in programs at the building are going through, he said. One of the murals features the first Navajo boy and girl, and the Joes' work portrays their journey into adulthood.

The murals are sizable at 5 feet by 5 feet, but Eugene said he once painted another one in Shiprock that was even bigger — 4 feet by 12 feet. This project may not feature an individual painting that big, but since it includes nine different works, it's even more labor intensive, he said.

"Yeah, it's an epic project," James said, laughing.

Neither brother would venture a guess as to when they would reach the finish line. Eugene said experience has taught him that's not a wise move.

"What I've learned is, never rush — give yourself time to create something unique," he said.

Eugene said the project is a bit of a departure for him. While he does work sometimes in acrylics and latex, he described himself primarily as a sandpainter. He got into art as a youngster by drawing and said he's never had any formal training. Most of the things he's learned, he said, have come by studying the work of other artists — and by being single minded in the way he goes about creating his work.

"Whatever you think of, try to stay in one channel," he said. "You want to develop your skill and make it all come together in one masterpiece."

James, on the other hand, said he took a variety of art courses at the University of New Mexico in the 1970s before teaching himself how to paint with acrylics.

The two have created other murals together, and they said they find it easy to work together, since they know each other's strengths and weaknesses.

They agreed that a significant part of the work that goes into any mural is the research that is required to make it accurate.

Eugene said they had spent a good deal of time consulting with other members of their nation before they started working on the Shiprock Youth Complex murals, and James said his preparation included a lot of listening and reading.

"It's very complicated," he said. "A lot of it is based on oral history where you have to dissect real characters and turn that into a story to make it visually informative."

That's an aspect of mural work that many observers fail to appreciate, he said.

"People don't understand you have to research the subject matter you're asked to paint, and that takes up a lot of time," he said, explaining that authenticity and integrity are very important. "We don't want to feel like we're lying to people. But we're fortunate to have the Internet."

After three months of work, James is looking forward to completing the mural and said he wasn't worried about what Shiprock Youth Complex officials might have in mind as far as celebrating that occasion.

"To me, I'm good to go after it's finished," he said, laughing.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610 and measterling@daily-times.com. Follow him@measterlingfdt on Twitter.