Abeita Reborn: The Story of a Master Artist’s Return

By Chuck Van Drunen

Gallup Journey Jim Abeita

Jim Abeita

Jim Abeita isn’t shy about his life. In fact we hadn’t even finished our first cup of coffee at Angela’s Café  when he admitted that for a number of years he was a typical downtown Gallup drunk.  He said that ended dramatically  on Sept. 11, 2005 when he left the American Bar and went out to the Courthouse Plaza.  The details of what happened that night aren’t exactly clear, but Jim was beaten by two adults to within inches of his life.

After 5 days in a coma at IHS he woke up tied to his hospital bed, because of violent seizures he unconsciously displayed.  “I think I was dreaming . . . nightmares,” Jim says.  But it may have been more of an exorcism, a casting out of the alcoholic demons that had drudged his life away from the beauty he created with brush and canvas.  He has never drunk since.  “That was my second chance . . . I should have been dead.  Now the focus for my last five years has been painting again.  I suppose getting jumped is what I needed to set my path straight.”

Before meeting Jim at Angela’s I had taken a trip to the Navajo Nation Museum to cover the art show that will be opening for him on April 14.  I noticed on the show flyer that it said,  “Help honor an artist who changed Native art forever.”  Quite a bold statement, I thought.  And when I asked Clarenda at the museum about it, she politely educated me on how Jim was the first Native artist to really master realism with oil paints.  Up until that point, nearly all Native paintings were of two dimensional representations in the drawing, water color, or paint mediums.

And it wasn’t just that Jim was one of the first Natives to do realistic oil paintings, it was simply painfully obvious that he was really, really good at it.  While Jim would shrug it off,  it has been said by “those who know” that Jim, regardless of race, creed, or content could possibly be one of the best living oil painters on the planet.  That’s pretty subjective, I know, but Johnny Cash, years earlier, seemed to agree.

Jim Abeita was born April 14, 1947 in Crownpoint, raised a few miles north near Becenti, where he spent the first 10 years of his life helping herd the family’s 100 or so sheep. It was while herding sheep that little Jimmy first learned to draw.  “My uncle and I would draw on the dark sandstone with a sharp rock; it was like a chalkboard.  We would draw all sorts of things: animals, soldiers, designs, and we did it out in the open.  That’s when it first started.”

At 10 Jimmy was taken to Mormon placement school where he stayed with a host family in Salt Lake City.  Jim’s artistic ability was obvious, and in grade school he entered a poster contest and won.  He then entered the city-wide poster contest and won; then the state wide contest and won again.  At a young age Jimmy was already in the papers for his art.

Gallup Journey Jim Abeita

One of Jim's works displayed at the Navajo Nation Museum.

A few years later his Mormon host family got him a set of oil paints for Christmas.  “At first I couldn’t figure them out and almost gave up, but I just kept playing with them and eventually got better,” Jim remembers.

At age 17, Jim met his wife, Hannah, a Navajo who grew up near Sheep Springs, who went to a different school, but also a part of the Mormon placement school program.  They fell in love and finished their last year of high school at Gallup High in 1966 and were married soon after.

Jim took a job doing some drafting for the BIA, but his boss saw that his talent was too great for that station.  He found Jim a free ride scholarship to attend the American Academy of Art in Chicago. Jim and Hannah moved east and they soon had the first of their three children.  Jim studied art and developed his painting living in downtown Chicago.

After a few years Hannah decided to take a stack of Jim’s scrap artwork to a nearby gallery called Art International.  The gallery was happy to buy all of Jim’s work for $10 a piece and Hannah brought home a check for $280.  Not too shabby for 1970 dollars.  This particular gallery had stores in 30 locations across the globe and very quickly requested more artwork from Jim.  Soon Jim was pumping out 30 to 40 small paintings a week, making good money, but not exactly the art he was hoping to do.

Gallup Journey Jim Abeita

Abeita portrait of Johnny Cash

Around Christmas in 1971 Hannah got tickets to a Johnny Cash concert and at her request Jim painted a large canvas portrait of Johnny.  At the concert they gave the painting to a stage manager who delivered it to Johnny.  Johnny liked the portrait so much that he requested Jim and Hannah come backstage after the show.  Mr. Cash then proceeded to make Jim and Hannah an offer they couldn’t refuse.  He asked them to come to his house in Nashville for a summer to do more portrait painting of his family.  Of course they went.

A friendship developed between the Cash and Abeita families and soon Cash was connecting Jim with other musicians like Waylon Jennings to do more work.  Hannah and Jim had made enough money after that summer to buy a singlewide and return to the Crownpoint land that he grew up on.   Johnny would randomly fly Jim to different events or shows across the country, and eventually Johnny came to visit Jim in Crownpoint.  That visit spawned a song called “Navajo” written in Jim’s honor.  The song is found on an obscure live album called Strawberry Cake.  (If you’re interested you can hear the song on youtube).

It’s hard not to find Jim in the lyrics:

I have seen your colors woven in your blankets

I have heard your names on rivers and old towns

I have see your turquoise on fine fancy ladies

and the Indian sun is rising instead of going down

Navajo, Navajo

the people called the people from 10,000 years ago

from the the land of the enchantment, Navajo

I have seen your red rock canyons out in Gallup

I have walked upon your Arizona hills

At Crownpoint I watched an artist painting

all the secrets of your past surviving still

Navajo, Navajo

the people called the people from 10,000 years ago

from the the land of the enchantment, Navajo

I have see your women dressed in royal purple

silver from your hills upon your hand

I don’t need a signpost readin “reservation”

I know the minute i’m on Indian land

Navajo, Navajo

the people called the people from 10,000 years ago

from the the land of the enchantment, Navajo

from the the land of the enchantment, Navajo

Gallup Journey Jim Abeita

Jim at 1970's State Fair

During this time, Jim, of course, entered paintings at the State Fair, and the Gallup Ceremonial in the early 1970s . . . and won.  He also began selling paintings at Mullarky’s photo shop in downtown Gallup and began to realize that $1000 was not too little to ask for one of his works.

Tragedy struck in 1974 when Hannah fell asleep at the wheel while driving to Shiprock.  She was killed but her cousin riding with her, known as “Tweeter” survived.  Jim’s three young children were left without a mother.  But Tweeter, who had always been a frequent babysitter, helped Jim raise the kids.  After some time Jim and Tweeter married and had one child of their own.  But after just 10 years Tweeter also died.

Jim spiraled, and the bottle became the escape for his pain.  He eventually had 2 more children with a woman who, ironically, also had clan ties to Sheep Springs. Even so alcohol slowly pushed its way to the front of Jim’s life, while his art slid off into the shadows . . .

A train just roared in, its whistle resonating on the silverware at Angela’s.  The pause was enough to make me realize we must have drunk 8 cups of coffee over the hours we talked.   Then the idea hits me.

I say to Jim, “Do you think there are still some rock drawings out on the rocks in Crownpoint?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s been a long time?”

“Do you want to go check?”

Gallup Journey Jim Abeita

Drawing sheep near Jim's childhood home.

The next thing I know we are driving out past Crownpoint to the open lands of the Becenti Chapter.  A few miles on the dirt and we are at Jim’s childhood home, a rock house now fallen apart.  We depart into the land and hike a half mile or so to a field of large dark brown sandstone boulders.  Jim scours the surface of some and finds some faint markings.  He picks up a rock and immediately starts touching one up.  Soon he is drawing on others.  His connection to the land is undeniably strong. He points to an eagle’s nest not far away, while indeed the shadows of two golden eagles circle high above. He smiles to reveal missing teeth that were shattered by that fateful night five years ago in downtown Gallup.  He smiles that somehow he has a second chance. He smiles because he has a rebirth, a time to do again what he was created to do.

And perhaps Johnny Cash sums up exactly what that is:

“I respect Jimmy for what he is, what he does, and what he is trying to do.  I know that in his heart, the mark he wants to leave in this world is to paint a picture of the culture, of the character, of the humanity of his People . . . May his works inspire you as he, himself, has inspired me.”

Today Jim has 14 grandchildren and has won recent honors as the Inter-Tribal Ceremonial poster artist. He  continues as a master artist and graciously allowed his work published in this issue of the Gallup Journey. It is no accident that Jim’s show at the Navajo Nation Museum opens at 5:30pm on April 14.  Jim will turn 64 that day.  Come say “Happy Birthday” to honor an artist’s journey and a sampling of his life’s work.

4 Responses to “Abeita Reborn: The Story of a Master Artist’s Return”

  1. Wayne G. Fennimore
    August 19, 2011 at 1:25 am #

    I met Jimmy in 1981 while on the road with The All American Indian Cowboy, Cody Bearpaw. We stopped at Jimmy’s trailer in Crown Point where he signed a book of prints for me. Jimmy had several of his paintings on the walls of his home – WOW! What command of color!!! I hope to cross paths with him again.

  2. Barbara Smart
    March 7, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    I purchased my first Abeita picture and I have been busy learning about him and his art. His life story touched my heart. I am proud to have a piece of his art. I don’t know the name of the art but it is a Navajo rider and horse riding in the snow with a forest in the foreground. The rider is wrapped in a blanket and his horse is either white or strawberry roan. I would love to know its name and the year it was made.

    • Mildred Butler
      November 4, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

      I have a picture fitting your description. It is titled “Late Fall in the Foothills”. I would be happy to send you a picture of my copy, if you want me to. I am still trying to find out when it was created, so if you’ve come across that information, would you please share it with me.
      Thank you so much.

  3. JIMMY ABEITA
    October 23, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    Jimmy- Happy Bday. We went to A.A.A. at the same time. I was Mary Johnson then. Congrats on your great success. Never doubted you would go far. You taught me alot. The benefit of sitting next to you that first year. Blessings. Marah

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