Modern Master - Canyon Artist Branches Out From Humble Beginnings
By Kathy Helms
CHINLE — Canyon de Chelly watercolor artist Justin Tso was 5 years old and out herding sheep with his grandpa back in 1953 when he first became inspired to draw and paint.
Since that time, he has done art shows across the United States, sold collections of his paintings for thousands of dollars, had a book written about him, appeared on the Home Shopping Network with Bob Eubanks, and has displayed his work in galleries from the West Coast to the East.
Tso grew up in the canyon with his mother, father, grandpa, his older brother and sister. He and his grandpa used to take the sheep out to graze and it was during one of those times while sitting out on the canyon rocks that he observed his grandpa sketching.
“I used to watch him draw horses on a piece of cardboard with an old worn-out pencil, and that’s how I started,” he said. “One day I just happened to come across a piece of paper.”
On one occasion when his grandpa got his monthly check, they all went down to what was then Garcia’s Trading Post in Chinle, now the Holiday Inn. “We drove our wagon out, which was the mode of travel for the Navajos that lived in the canyon at that time. I unhitched the horses, gave them a flake of hay, and we all went into the store.“
My mother and grandfather went grocery shopping and got a month’s supply. I happened to look into one of those glass displays and it had an eight-color watercolor set in there. Boy, they looked interesting to me.
I ran to my grandpa, and said, ‘Grandpa, can you buy me those watercolor sets?’ I think they were like 19 cents.“He said, ‘No, we’ve got to buy food first, we’ve got to go out and feed the horses first.’ I kind of got upset with him. I did my chores slowly. I didn’t bother with him anymore since he said ‘your food comes first.’
“So as we were going back up the canyon that afternoon driving the wagon, I just looked the other way and looked at the wheels turn and turn and turn. We got back up into the canyon and he said, ‘Well, grandson, you’ve got to unhitch the horses and let them loose.’ I dragged my feet doing the things he told me to do.
“My mother, she had built the fire already and got ready to do the evening meal in the fireplace. I was still upset with my grandpa,” Tso said. Once he was inside, his grandpa suddenly said to him, “Come over here and sit by me. Come over here and talk to me.”
“I dragged myself over there and he put his arms around me and says, ‘You know, I don’t want you to be mad at me.’ He used to wear an old suit coat. He reached in there and pulled out my watercolors, and that’s when I knew I had become an artist.”
The day after, Tso started drawing a scene of the canyon with a painted horse grazing along the canyon floor. “It took me a long time to finish it. I put it away between two cardboard boxes that we had laying around there, and every evening I would go into that suitcase and look at my finished drawing and put it back in there. I cherished that thing so much.”
That fall, when the family was getting ready to go to the store again, he took the drawing with him. They encountered Tso’s dad, who worked for the National Park Service at the time, and Park Superintendent Paul Berger.
“I knew he was an artist, too, because he painted my mother sitting at the loom. They were friendly at that time, the park service. They were there with a helping hand. They were not like what they are today.
“I ran up to where my dad was and there was Paul Berger standing over there, and I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a drawing over here.’ He looked at my drawing. He thought it was real cute and he gave me $5 for it. That’s how I started,” Tso said.
He was sent to boarding schools in Chinle, Fort Wingate, Gallup, and Oklahoma. “I always, always took art classes. I guess you could say I’m a self-taught painter.”
When he was in the Army, he used to draw cartoon booklets to amuse his company and sergeant. When discharged he returned to Chinle and “just hung around and did a lot of drinking — cheap wine.”
Then one day on a trip to Window Rock he received an offer from the Navajo Nation to attend the American Academy of Art in Chicago at the tribe’s expense. “But I turned that down because a lady that used to be here for many, many years, she began buying my artwork. I think it numbered like 98 paintings she had. That’s when I started traveling out with my artwork.
“I owe all this to a lady named Ruth Goldsboro. She’s up in North Carolina living with her daughter. She’s probably about 94 years old. She discovered me here in the canyon one day and she was the one that got me started doing outdoor shows.
“I never knew that people liked the style I was doing until one day I did this show out in Pinetop, Ariz. I had like 24 pieces and I was the only artist that sold out that first day.”
Tso learned his painting style by observing the works of Quincy Tahoma, a Navajo who grew up near Tuba City and became one of the most successful Indian artists trained at the Santa Fe Indian School Studio. He also did a lot of stylized art in the tradition of Harrison Begay of Whitecone, Robert Chee of St. Michaels and others who attended the Studio established in 1932 by Dorothy Dunn.
“She had turned these Navajo guys into real fine artists.Today you can only see very little of their originals. You see a lot of prints,” Tso said. “I am not the best artist in this world. I’m probably the only one doing Navajo stylized art like those guys that went to the Santa Fe art school back around the early ’40s with Dorothy Dunn. I enjoyed looking at that thing so much, it gave me the want to do that kind of art,” he said.
Most of his work centers on traditional Navajos. “I hardly ever do any Plains-type Indian art because that’s not my style. My style is what I learned as a self-taught Navajo artist. It’s taken me a lot of trials,” he said.
One day a lady named Virginia Benderly who had collected Tso’s work for over 20 years decided she wanted to write a book about him. He agreed, thinking it was going to be an easy project. Instead, it took over a year.“We ran 5,000 copies and it’s a sold-out edition,” he said.
Some of his paintings were sold to Bud Adams, owner of the Houston Oilers back before they became the Tennessee Titans. “I did a collection of paintings for him for his home in Galveston, Texas,” Tso said. Three of his paintings also were selected for a silent auction hosted by Adams’ daughter, Susie Smith, to raise funds for the Ronald McDonald House. “It was in the paper that they auctioned three of my pieces at $38,000,” he said.
“I can sell any painting from $300 on up today. It’s an affordable piece of artwork that I do. Maybe in another 30 years I’ll get all greedy and sell it for more.”
Tso, a proponent of the Navajo Nation taking back management control of Canyon de Chelly from the National Park Service, already is planning for that event.“That painting is in my mind now.
There were three elders that made that agreement at the junction in the canyon,” he said, including his grandfather’s brother, Grayeyes Skendore, prior to signing of the paper treaty at Fort Wingate.
“Today we all know that it cost the Navajo Nation,” Tso said. “I want to do a painting where there’s going to be Navajos going back into the canyon on horseback. I’m going to title it, ‘The Full Management.’ I’ve already got it through my mind what it’s going to look like,” he said.
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