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.
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.
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.
used to watch him draw horses on a piece of cardboard with an old
worn-out pencil, and thats how I started, he said. One
day I just happened to come across a piece of paper.
one occasion when his grandpa got his monthly check, they all went
down to what was then Garcias 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.
mother and grandfather went grocery shopping and got a months
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
said, No, weve got to buy food first, weve got
to go out and feed the horses first. I kind of got upset with
him. I did my chores slowly. I didnt bother with him anymore
since he said your food comes first.
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, youve got to unhitch the horses and let them loose.
I dragged my feet doing the things he told me to do.
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.
dragged myself over there and he put his arms around me and says,
You know, I dont 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 thats when I knew I had become an artist.
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.
fall, when the family was getting ready to go to the store again,
he took the drawing with him. They encountered Tsos dad, who
worked for the National Park Service at the time, and Park Superintendent
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.
were not like what they are today.
ran up to where my dad was and there was Paul Berger standing over
there, and I said, Hey, Ive got a drawing over here.
He looked at my drawing. He thought it was real cute and he gave
me $5 for it. Thats how I started, Tso said.
was sent to boarding schools in Chinle, Fort Wingate, Gallup, and
Oklahoma. I always, always took art classes. I guess you could
say Im 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.
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 tribes
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. Thats when I started
traveling out with my artwork.
owe all this to a lady named Ruth Goldsboro. Shes up in North
Carolina living with her daughter. Shes 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.
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.
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.
Im 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.
of his work centers on traditional Navajos. I hardly ever
do any Plains-type Indian art because thats not my style.
My style is what I learned as a self-taught Navajo artist. Its
taken me a lot of trials, he said.
day a lady named Virginia Benderly who had collected Tsos
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.
ran 5,000 copies and its a sold-out edition, he said.
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.
can sell any painting from $300 on up today. Its an affordable
piece of artwork that I do. Maybe in another 30 years Ill
get all greedy and sell it for more.
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.
painting is in my mind now. There were three elders that made that
agreement at the junction in the canyon, he said, including
his grandfathers brother, Grayeyes Skendore, prior to signing
of the paper treaty at Fort Wingate.
we all know that it cost the Navajo Nation, Tso said. I
want to do a painting where theres going to be Navajos going
back into the canyon on horseback. Im going to title it, The
Full Management. Ive already got it through my mind
what its going to look like, he said.