Diné artist's mural graces famed religious site

By Bill Donovanh
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Jan. 19, 2012

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(Courtesy photo - Charles Sargeant/El Santuario de Chimayo)

TOP: Artist Shawn Nelson, left, and Father Julio Gonzales of the El Santuario de Chimayo pose with Nelson's design for a 5-x-8 foot sandpainting.

BOTTOM: Shawn Nelson's 5-x-8 foot sandpainting of a Native version of the Last Supper adorns the El Santuario de Chimayo near Espanola, N.M.

There is a special bond between Shawn Nelson and El Santuario de Chimayo that is expected to go on long after he passes away.

For the past couple of years Nelson, known professionally as Turquoise Man, has been pursuing a labor of love at the northern New Mexico religious landmark - a 5-by-8 foot sandpainting of a Native version of the Last Supper.

"Father Julio Gonzales had seen my work and asked me to do something for the sanctuary," explained Nelson, who is Dibé Lizhin´ (Black Sheep Clan), born for Kinyaa'áanii (Towering House Clan).

That was more than two years ago and Nelson's completed work can now be seen at the sanctuary, located near Espanola about a half-hour's drive from Santa Fe.

In the mural, Nelson uses Native faces to portray the disciples, showing a halo around all but one, the image that portrays Judas. All of the men are either sitting on the ground or standing.

On Dec. 10 the finished work was blessed by Father Julio, head of the sanctuary, and now is displayed in a prominent place there, to be seen annually by hundreds of thousands of religious supplicants who visit the shrine seeking divine intervention for health or other problems in their lives.

The earth from which the adobe structure is built is renowned for its healing powers, and Nelson was given some from the sanctuary floor to use in the mural by Father Julio.

The mural is the most recent of several works by Nelson on display at El Santuario de Chimayó, and they are the only Native works in it.

"It is my hope that the place where my sandpaintings are displayed may add to what this special place brings year round to the people locally, nationally as well as internationally," Nelson said.

This is just one of a series of accomplishments Nelson has achieved during his 53 years on earth, most of which have been spent as an artist, first in California where he was born and then in Wide Ruins, Ariz., where he grew up.

Nelson, who has been making a living as an artist for more than two decades, remembers doing his first painting when he was about 13. He took it to the Wide Ruins Trading Post and showed it to the owner, Armand Ortega.

It was a painting of a horse and rider and Nelson remembers to this day being asked by Ortega, who bought and sold thousands of dollars worth of Native arts and crafts yearly, to sign and date the painting.

"He did this, he said, so that when I became famous someday, he would have the first painting I did," Nelson said, adding that he hoped Ortega wasn't kidding.

Nelson remembers selling the painting for $75, which was a lot of money back in the early 1970s.

"This was a lifesaver for my brothers and cousin because we had no lunch and we were almost out of gas," he said.

Even as a teenager, Nelson said he knew that his life would be devoted to art and being an ambassador for his people.

"All my life as I was growing up, I felt my work of art would someday sell," he said. "At one point, I put a sign in the back of my late dad's truck on the camper which said, 'An artist is riding in this vehicle.'"

Nelson, who now resides in Rock Springs, N.M., knew his artwork would be about his people and "everybody would love my work. That was my dream," he said.

Over the next four decades, he would produce hundreds of paintings and sandpaintings and has been recognized for the great detail he puts into his sandpaintings, in particular.

He sells his work privately and is not represented by a gallery. He said he has had no major museum exhibitions yet but he is working on some for the future.

Nelson's work is so detailed that it allows the personality of each subject to stand out and this is one reason Father Julio said he has commissioned Nelson's work for Chimayó.

The new mural isn't the first time Nelson has depicted the Last Supper. In a work he did a couple of years ago, the disciples bore the faces of famous Native leaders including Chee Dodge, Manuelito, Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.

Nelson's latest work for the sanctuary, titled "In the beginning," is actually the centerpiece of a triptych. Eventually the Last Supper will be flanked by two other murals portraying Father Sky and Mother Earth.

While working on "The Last Supper," Nelson was also pursuing an associates degree at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, which is one reason the mural took him seven months to finish.

He admits it is unusual for someone in his early 50s to take the time out of their life to learn something that most people would feel he knew because of the quality of his art.

But he said the time spent at IAIA was worth it.

"Being there helped me integrate my experiences as an artist and to expand my ideas," he said. "The education I got there was a gift that opened me to other forms of expression and styles of painting and helped me to communicate in a more universal way."

Now, he said, his artwork is both traditional and universal because "I have painted topics covering such things as global warming, political issues and religious images interpreted through my own visions and creations as I meditate."

His goal for education isn't over yet. Nelson has been admitted to the spring 2012 semester at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque where he plans to continue studying art.

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