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Navajo Sand Painting - History and Ceremony

How Did Navajo Sandpainting Start? What Visitors Need to Know About Sandpainting

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Navajo Sand Painter

Navajo Sand Painter

Ernst Haas - Getty Images
Updated March 14, 2008
Where Did Sandpainting Start?

It is widely believed by historians that Navajo people learned sandpainting from Pueblo Indians, who came to live with them after the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Navajos, however, credit the knowledge of sandpaintings to the “Holy Ones” who instructed them in the healing ways. As the “Holy Ones” can’t be seen by human eyes, the instructions were relayed through spirits such as the Wind People who taught ceremonial songs and chants. Sacred paintings were revealed on sheepskin scrolls with instructions to do the painting with colors of Mother Earth and to pass on the knowledge to those in future generations who had the patience and ability to learn it.

Outsiders Discover Sandpainting

Sacred designs were hidden from outsiders until the late 1800’s when a Navajo woman used a sacred design in a rug, the first time the ceremonial design was used in a non-traditional manner. In the early 1900’s many traders and historians reproduced designs of ceremonial sandpainting on paper. The actual capability to make permanent sandpaintings was initiated by David Villasenor who developed a simple “How to Saindpaint” kit around 1960, intended for school children. Fred Stevens is believed to be the first Navajo to use the Villasenor method for making permanent sandpaintings. Until 1975, most sandpaintings were rather crude and dull in appearance done with a limited number of simple designs. They have only been commercially available for about 25 years, although a few examples of earlier efforts have been found.

How to Determine Quality

The quality of a sandpainting is determined by the fineness and uniformity of the sand, the complexity of design, and the skill of the artist in producing even, straight, uniform lines. Only hand-ground, naturally colored rocks, sandstone, kj or minerals are used. The work itself is a buildup of layers of sand. The details, resembling closely the true ceremonial designs, are the challenge that reveals the artist’s true ability. Sandpaintings are now available in many other forms.

Sand Art

The name “sandart” has recently been adopted to describe sandpainting in all its forms, including those that look like oil or acrylic paintings of ceremonial objects. Although still produced with natural sands, shading techniques and subject matter have changed them dramatically from the early simple designs. There are a few sandpainters who have combined their sandpainting talents in oil or acrylic painting, producing startling results. Still-life and pictorial designs of these artists are one-of-a-kind collectible art with appreciating values.

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