Originally published Tuesday, July 9, 2019 at 11:17a.m.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Namingha Institute was held June 10-15 at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and was made possible by a special endowment by Phil Smith, a supporter of the Namingha family of artists and a collector of their work.

The Navajo-Hopi Observer talked with a student and the master teacher, who both helped students during the Namingha Institute.

Antoinette Thompson, student

Thompson said she took a chance when she applied for the Namingha Institute and the opportunity to work with Bahe Whitethorne Sr. was too much for her to pass up.

“It is just something that I just decided to try for,” Thompson said. “I quit my job to do art full-time.”

Thompson has a master’s degree in healthcare, but she wanted to pursue her art career and taking more steps to further it.

“I saw this opportunity. I applied for it and I got it, which is kinda cool,” she said.

Thompson said she is a brand new student into the art world because she has never taken an art class, other than a few art classes during the summer. She got accepted into the Chicago Art Institute, where she will be in August.

“Me being in the art market for a little while, knowing some of these people — I didn’t think I would get accepted,” Thompson said.

But after getting accepted, being at the institute for a few days and emerging as a leader of the group, has been a great experience for Thompson.

“It’s been beautiful,” she said. “They do look up to me because of my little art career that I have. They get to ask me questions and I get to tell them about how it is, what I’ve done, where’ve I’ve been and how long I’ve worked with some of these people. So that really inspires them to become a little bit more confident in their artwork.”

Thompson also talked to the artists about texture work, and mixing paint colors. But she also told the other students about some of what it takes to be an artist full time.

“[I told them about] stepping out of the norm, if they want to be creative, you have to literally step out of your comfort zone,” Thompson said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to teach them, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell them. I kinda feel like an assistant to Bahe, which is really cool.”

Thompson sees one of her roles as being able to talk to people wherever she travels about what it takes to be an artist — small tips and details about the artist life.

“The traveling, separating your personal life from your art life and make sure that that thin line is not crossed on both sides,” she said. “To keep an artist mindset about everything you do, how you approach people, getting used to being interviewed by random people and just showing your artwork as much people and the cheapest way to get things done to put money in your pocket.”

Thompson said because it was the first year of the Namingha Institute, she thinks it will create more opportunities for young students to step out of what they are normally used to.

“It takes them away from their homes for a week or two, they get used to being around art,” Thompson said.

She said she heard from many of the students who wanted to learn how to time manage their art.

“This is a perfect opportunity for them to learn how important art is,” Thompson said. “It’s very important and they get to ask a master (Bahe) how it’s done, and what they should do. Not just with the art, but with the business side. It’s a huge part of the art industry and it’s a lot of information. It’s perfect. I love it. I’m glad they started this.”

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Bahe Whitethorne Sr. takes a look at one of the paintings students created during the Namingha Institute. (Kevin Moriarty/NHO)

Bahe Whitethorne Sr., master artist and teacher

Whitethorne said that art is his life and what he does. Being part of the Namingha Institute is what you do as part of being an artist and he was happy that other fellow artists shared the same idea that younger upcoming artists who are interested in pursuing a career in art could benefit from an experience like the institute.

“To be able to be a part of that — and to give up something from your own personal experience as an artist… in dealing with carrying on the idea of building a career for yourself,” Whitethorne said. “The key things I’ve learned, I’m sharing with them.”

Some of those are contracts, working with galleries — how to deal with them — and how to balance family and artwork. How to understand what each person’s goals are, how to look at the future, how to look at oneself as a small business, paying attention to the income that each artist makes, how to use and finance their art work.

“Work can be dependent on yourself and being self-reliant is the key to not being so dependent on a gallery,” Whitethorne said. “The connections you make and the relationships that you build, they all are long term. Because you made a customer that begins with you and grows with you over the years. You get to meet the kids, their kids, the grandkids. You gain a lot, not all in one person. But you get a huge selection of friends and they come back. It’s easy to make a living that way.”

Whitethrone said the learning doesn’t just go one way — relationships and connections, even with new artists, goes both ways and he learns from them, too.

He said he realized that the students in the first cohort of the Namingha Institute were a little hesitant at first.

“Figuring out where they fit and how they found themselves,” he said. “But with a little bit of direction about what it is, they seem to really soak it in like they were sponges.”

In just a few days’ time, Whitethorne could see more confidence in each of the artists.

“I think that was what I was trying to share was for them to learn something from experience as an artist,” he said. “They’re all young and if they want to pursue careers in art or education, they can go to school and get plenty of the technical side of painting. They can do that for themselves. I’m sharing with them how I work and how I have learned to gain techniques and understand what works for me and how else I can apply things.”

The students took a field trip to Whitethorne’s own studio, a visit that blew the students away with how much there was to see and absorb of Whitehtorne’s own work.

“There was a lot. I tell them, I always start things, I’m always working and I’m always finishing things, so there’s always plenty to see,” Whitethorne said.

Whitethorne said one of the biggest things he tried to get across to the students was to not be so tight with their work, to loosen things up.

“It took me a couple of days to loosen them up, but once we got going, this was done in matter of hours,” Whitethorne said gesturing at one of the paintings that the students collaborated on.

Whitethorne explained that artists can be very critical of themselves as individuals.

“That’s the way we’re taught, but then to leave a lot of that behind and just go for whatever,” Whitethorne said. “You can take a drop cloth and throw paint on it and all work on it. That can be the canvas and [it’s art.]”

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