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Diné Artist honors grandmother through craft

Life on the Navajo reservation helped shape 39-year-old Diné artisan Philander Begay. Begay is a Navajo artist who has won numerous awards for his jewelry at the Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial, Santa Fe shows, and the Heard Museum.

Begay remembers hanging on the skirt tails of his grandmother in Round Rock, Ariz., as she would teach him things about the Diné culture. They would walk together as his grandmother pointed out certain things about the land. One of the things he learned about was the horned toad.

“My grandma would find one, pick it up, and pray for it as well as bless it. She would talk to it and say it would give me good luck in my life.”

The horned toad was from his grandma, ever since he was little his grandma would pray and bless the horned toad. She would talk to it and give us good luck from it.”

Since then, he has lived all over the Southwest and made Gallup his home in 2012,

Begay is now creating beautiful jewelry designed from the horned toad among other inspirations he was taught by his grandmother.

He specializes in tufa cast. Tufa is a sedimentary rock made up of limestone.

Tufa cast is the process of carving a mold into volcanic ash using the carving as the negative space into which precious stones are inlaid along with 14-karat or 18-karat gold  and silver, and of course, patience and time.

His unique style is highly sought-after. Even before the item is finished, it is often already spoken for and sold.

Some of Begay’s jewelry incorporates pueblo styles. He says he’s always been influenced by various pueblo ruins around New Mexico and by Anasazi images on pottery shards he would come across. He often wondered what became of them [the Anasazi people]. With these pictures in his mind, he began crafting those images into his bracelets.

“I inlay like how the Anasazi put together the bricks as they would put their homes together,” he said.

His wife Shanibah and son, Isiah Begay, also help with casting and inlays. Begay makes bracelets, rings, pendants, concho belts, and bolo ties. The most expensive piece Begay sold was around $20,000 for a concho belt.

He never thought that doing this type of art would create a comfortable living for his family.

“I’ve always been an artisan since I was a kid,” he said. “I remember drawing a landscape of my grandma’s place in Round Rock. (laughing), I even try to sell it for $3. I remember my dad would draw horses and I wanted to draw like him. I remember helping out my cousin with his jewelry and just picked it up there.”

Begay said with the artistic influence from his father and cousin, his career unfolded naturally. Begay’s jewelry is singular. He doesn’t claim to follow any particular style, and he has no boundaries with his creations.

Begay was fortunate to have partnered with some of the Gorman Galleries, in Taos, Santa Fe, and Scottsdale, Ariz. to showcase his work. This partnership has continued for 12 years, helping him, and supporting him along his journey.

“I like the way we worked and here we are running a gallery that just opened up here in downtown Gallup. It’s like a dream come true. It’s all falling in place and feels like it’s meant to be.”

Begay says he wants to pursue other areas of art like painting and has already begun trying his hand at it. Even though COVID has slowed many businesses, it was the opposite for Begay. He says it gave him more time catch up on orders that he needs to finish.

He loves what he does and asked if there was anything else he would choose to be doing instead – he simply said he couldn’t imagine doing anything else but creating beauty that he hopes will still be here when he is long gone.

For more information on Philander Begay Jewelry, visit his web site: philanderbegay.net call (505) 409-3916, or visit 202 W. Coal Ave. in Gallup.

By Dee Velasco
For the Sun

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