One of the nation’s leading American Indian artists, Oklahoma-based Benjamin Harjo Jr. is an award-winning Absentee Shawnee-Seminole painter and printmaker best known for his highly stylized geometric forms and use of boldly saturated colors. His art evokes a vibrant, storytelling quality, with imagery that echoes traditional Seminole, Navajo, Plains Indian, and Northwest Coast designs. A very busy and talented artist, we were lucky enough to catch him for a brief Q&A. Here’s what we learned about his life and work.
Growing up, did you always know you wanted to be an artist? How did your artistic journey begin?
I was born to be an artist. Growing up, I lived with my granny and grandfather on their farm. There, I spent many hours at the creek and exploring the woods around the property. Not having toys, I relied a lot on my imagination for fun, playing with rocks and sticks and using them to create my own toys…something I still enjoy doing today.
Many people call you “The Picasso of Native American Art.” Did Picasso’s work play a big role in the development of your artistic style? If so, what aspect of his work do you admire most?
I admire Picasso’s work as I admire the works of other artists, but he was not a big influence. I feel I have developed my own style. After graduation, I left Oklahoma for Santa Fe to attend a 2-year program at the Institute of American Indian Art. At the institute, I was given basic art instruction, but was encouraged to draw from my own Native identity. My biggest influence there was one of my instructors, Seymore Tubis. Seymore taught me woodblock printing, something I still love doing today.
How has your rural Oklahoma upbringing shown up in your art over the years?
Being a farm boy, I spent a good deal of time observing nature and using my imagination.
Your pieces all have a storytelling quality, and I read that you are a lover of stories. As a Shawnee/Seminole artist, do you feel your art has a role to play in preserving the oral traditions of your people?
Not only for my people, but for other nations as well.
What is one of your favorite stories to tell?
I love stories about turtles, birds, nature and life. There are so many of them, it would be hard to pick one.
What are some of the common themes and motifs that show up in your artwork?
Design and geometric patterns from my Seminole side and the repetitive patterns from other Nations and cultures.
Pencil, pen and ink, pastel, oil, gouache, acrylic, conté crayons—you name it, you work with it. Out of all the mediums in your artistic arsenal, do you have a favorite?
I love working in all mediums, but my favorites are woodblock printing, painting with gouache, and my pen and inks.
What is your most important artist tool…the one thing essential to your workflow?
My imagination and observation of my surroundings. Someone once asked me if I was afraid of running out of ideas. What I’m afraid of is not having the time to get it all on paper. I’ve always considered my imagination to be my very best tool.
How do you know when a work is finished?
I begin every piece with a general idea of where I want it to go, but they seem to take on a life of their own. I feel a sense of satisfaction when it’s time to release a new piece, but some are never finished.
What does your art mean to you?
My art is my life and has opened doors to travel, meeting other artists and collectors. It’s been a journey I could have only dreamed of as that farm boy from rural Oklahoma.