World-renowned Navajo artist Bahe Whitethorne Jr. died this week at the age of 41. It was sudden and a cause of death is yet to be publically released. Whitethorne was an accomplished painter, illustrator and musician. His vibrant murals are scattered across the southwest. Friends remember him as a visionary artist with a joyful heart and helpful nature. KNAU’s Justin Regan has this remembrance.
On the inside of the amphitheater at the STAR School near Leupp is Whitethorne’s mural depicting the cycle of a day. It incorporates the four directions, starting with bright skies in the east and curving into darkness and shining stars in the north. He left spaces in the mural for students to create their own art. Mark Sorensen is the school President. He says Whitethorne often shared his passion for art with the kids.
"When I look at his art I think of the joy he brought to his interactions with the art and with people," says Sorensen. "I think really wonderful art is like that. It gives you a feeling of joy and it’s uplifting. That’s what we’ll remember about Buddy."
“Buddy” is what his friends call him. Whitethorne was Tsi’naajínii and Lók’aa’ Dine’é. He grew up in Flagstaff in a family of artists. His father is the famous painter Baje Whitethorne Sr. While his father was a mentor to him, Whitethorne Jr. developed his own style influenced by cartoons, anime and Star Wars. He illustrated several children’s books, including the beloved series Keepers of the Windclaw Chronicles. Musician Ed Kabotie was a friend and admirer.
"For Bahe I knew the person and I knew the artwork and they were one in the same. Emminating joy and light," says Kabotie.
Whitethorne also used art to advocate for Native issues concerning water, sacred sites and uranium mining.
"Not only that, issues related to his own spiritual quest," says Kabotie. "All those elements were put into his work and I feel like that’s why his work was so powerful. It came from a source that was really rich."
Whitethorne’s long-time family friend, artist Shonto Begay paints through his pain at his Flagstaff studio. He fills the white canvas in front of him with black paint.
"This seems to be the tone of the day."
Begay says Whitethorne was a mentor to many young Navajo artists. He remembers him as always smiling and working.
"A lot of artists sit in front of the canvas with a silent battle with a white space," says Begay. "Buddy didn’t seem to have that problem. He was always cranking out work. I was amazed and thought, wow, this young man is having fun throwing paint, creating images, creating magic. And so that in itself is inspiring."
Before his death, Whithethorne had been chosen as the featured artist at this summer’s Shonto Rock the Canyon Arts Festival. Begay says now the honor will be bittersweet.
"It will be sad without him. But his spirit will be there."
The music at the end of this story is an original song by Bahe Whitethorne Jr. called Dream Day Afternoon. Recorded in 1998.