Diné artists spearhead fundraiser for Japan

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

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(Special to the Times - Darryl Dean Begay)

Navajo jewelers, left to right, Darryl Dean Begay, Raymond C. Yazzie and Lyndon Tsosie look at the some of the pieces of artwork donated by Native American artists to the Native American Artists for Japan emergency relief effort.

As award-winning silversmith Raymond C. Yazzie watched TV footage of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, his thoughts went immediately to how he could help the stricken nation.

Yazzie, who has numerous Japanese friends and customers, thought about all the friends he's made in the Native art world during his 42 years in the business, and knew in his heart there was something he could do.

That something was to hold an online art auction to benefit the people of Japan. Utilizing the Internet, Yazzie and his friends quickly organized Navajo American Artists for Japan, and began raising donations of artwork to be auctioned on eBay.

The money raised will go to the Red Cross to provide relief for the people of Japan, Yazzie said.

The first auction is scheduled Tuesday, April 5, and will feature 25 breathtaking pieces of art, including "Three Mudheads," a stone lithograph by Charles Loloma, the legendary Hopi artist and jeweler.

The Loloma lithograph comes from the private collection of Navajo painter Tony Abeyta, and the starting price is $1,500.

Abeyta also donated one of his own paintings, a multicolor image of a yei done in acrylic. Its starting point is $2,000.

Yazzie credits fellow prominent jewelry makers Darryl Dean Begay and Lyndon Tsosie for making his brainchild a reality. He said that while the idea was still fresh in his mind, he telephoned the two of them to discuss it.

Before he even got home and called a planning meeting, Begay and Tsosie had started contacting their friends in the art world and donations were already coming in, Yazzie said.

As of Wednesday, three dozen artists had donated work or money, and more than a dozen others had committed to making a donation. A handful of galleries and private donors also had donated items to be auctioned.

"It's gonna be huge," Begay said of the fundraising effort. "It hasn't been done before; Natives giving back. Most of the time, we're receiving handouts."

And he said what's really "cool" is that more artists are joining Native American Artists for Japan every day.

"When the tsunami hit Japan, we all had our own emotions but my chei (grandfather) by clan, Raymond C. Yazzie, who is a well-known jeweler and a top jeweler in the art scene, actually wanted to do something instead of sitting around and wishing he could do this and that," Begay said. "He got hold of me and Lyndon Tsosie and he told us, 'Let's do something about it.'"

Begay said he has minimal computer skills, but he and Tsosie nevertheless created a Facebook page about Yazzie's idea and immediately got encouragement and donations from artists.

"It caught on like wildfire," Begay recalled. "Artists wanted to donate. They were all excited."

Yazzie contacted big-name artists like renowned Hopi jeweler Velma Nequatewa-Sonwai, who learned the skill from her uncle Charles Loloma, and Navajo silversmiths McKee Platero and Perry Shorty.

Begay described Nequatewa-Sonwai, Platero and Shorty as "living legends," and said once their names were on the Facebook page, support started pouring in from other artists across the Southwest and even Canada.

Haida artist Dorothy Grant of Canada, who produces wearable art that is bought by international buyers, was the first indigenous artist from another country to donate to the effort.

Professional Web designers Suki Soltysik, Navajo, and John Paul Rangel, Apache, contacted him on the Facebook and offered to create a Web page for the group (www.nativeamericanartistsforjapan.com).

The NAAJ website incorporates the Japanese words for love and hope and features short videos of some of the artists talking about the emergency relief effort for Japan and asking other artists, gallery owners, art collectors and friends to donate.

One of the featured artists is Jacob Morgan, who described himself as a sixth-generation old-style Navajo jeweler.

"The current tragedy that the people of Japan are dealing with has forced many of us to really reconsider what is important in life," Morgan said. "(Yazzie, Begay and Tsosie) have provided artisans a perfect way to show our appreciation and compassion for our friends overseas."

The website also has a link to the eBay auction site where color photos of the donated artwork are posted.

Begay said he thinks the reason there's been such an outpouring of support from Native artists is because "we know a lot of Japanese people. We have real strong connections.

"And," he added, "they're huge buyers of Native American art, jewelry, and other work. Native American Artists for Japan is another way of giving back to our friends."

Begay said the Southwestern Association for Indian Art, which hosts the annual Santa Fe Indian Market, donated its services and nonprofit certification to manage the money generated and make sure it all gets to the Red Cross.

Once the fundraising is finished, NAAP will announce how much money was raised, he said.

To donate: www.nativeamericanartistsorjapan.com.

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