Philander Begay celebrates 20 years as a silversmith. Photograph by Stefan Wachs.
TUCKED TOWARD THE rear of the R.C. Gorman Navajo Gallery, in Gallup, Philander Begay’s workspace—adorned with pictures of his family, stones from around the world, and blocks of tufa casts—is serene. Beyond the cordoned-off area, though, the gallery buzzes.
Two exhibiting artists concentrate on projects at each end of the gallery. Begay’s wife, Shanibah, an accomplished jeweler, flutters across the sales floor chatting with customers. She periodically pops into Begay’s workspace to check on the status of orders.
Begay, who is celebrating 20 years as a silversmith, is fashioning a new path. Last year, as he scouted for a studio in Gallup, he was approached by Southwestern art magnate and R.C. Gorman estate owner Bob Sahd about partnering to open a 15th R.C. Gorman Gallery here. It opened in December. Commissions for Begay’s own work come in from as far away as Australia and Japan.
A Round Rock, Arizona, native, Begay grew up surrounded by jewelers. His mother, uncles, and cousins are silversmiths. Having art in his life felt normal, until a high school metalsmithing teacher told him he could make it a career. Begay crafted two brass rings and turned them in for grading, and they were so good he never saw them again. “I look back now and think, Wow, that was it.”
By age 20, he was working construction jobs to support a growing family. But that meant being away from home for weeks at a time. “I didn’t want to leave my family,” he says. “Silversmithing allowed me to stay at home to be with them.”
His cousin, master silversmith Darryl Dean Begay, helped teach him tufa-casting fundamentals. “You gotta think negative,” Begay says. “You have to carve into the tufa to create the exterior.” A quick study and versatile designer, he earned a blue ribbon for his first entry at the Santa Fe Indian Market in 2007—a silver Yei Bi Chei concho belt.
His jewelry remains grounded in iconic symbols of Navajo culture—Spider Woman, dragonflies, waterbirds, and, especially during the pandemic, horned toads. Images of the lizards are his way of communicating good luck in times of trouble. “When you see a horned toad at your summer or winter camp, you pick it up and rub their claws over your heart four times,” he says. “It’s a blessing.”
Since building metalsmithing careers, the Begays have introduced the practice to their two oldest sons, who now have their own artistic followings. There’s still plenty of work to be done today, but Begay doesn’t mind. “Making jewelry, operating the gallery, taking care of things at home,” he says, “it’s a dream come true.”