Benjamin Harjo, Jr., “Honoring the Spirit of All Things,” 2001

Students in Prof. Siddons’ “Art Since 1960” class had the chance this spring to write about a work of art from the OSUMA collection, featured in the exhibition, “Sharing a Journey.” The assignment entailed looking at a work of art for at least 45 minutes, and to write about their close-looking experience, followed by interpretation. Stephanie Addison wrote about Benjamin Harjo Jr.’s Honoring the Spirit of All Things from 2001. The following text was excerpted from her paper by graduate teaching assistant Michelle Rinard.

Harjo’s opaque watercolor painting is a mix of both representational and abstraction. What I found representational was the face being depicted at the top of the painting. Other than that, the rest of the painting consists of random abstracted shapes and lines depicted in different hues of bright colors.

Benjamin Harjo, Jr., "Honoring the Spirit of All Things," 2001. Opaque watercolor on paper, anonymous gift, 2012.009.004.

Benjamin Harjo, Jr., “Honoring the Spirit of All Things,” 2001. Opaque watercolor on paper, anonymous gift, 2012.009.004.

Since there is a face being depicted I tried to find a story or a message in this piece of art. The face appears to have emotion. It is tilted back looking up towards the sky. The eyes are slightly open as well as the mouth. I think this spirit, as the title indicates, is taking in or releasing air. There does not appear to be any strain on the face giving the impression of being relaxed. When comparing the face to the abstracted areas the face appears to shift from relaxation to exhaustion. The colors and shapes seem to be overtaking the representational element and pulling the face into the abstraction.

The abstracted elements of this piece made me wonder about the purpose of this painting. What is a spirit of “all things” and what is it trying to tell the viewer? Is it talking about life, objects, the universe, reality, imagination, or things beyond this world? I think the painting can be related to all of my questions. The abstracted areas are a hodge-podge of colors, shapes and patterns. They are all mangled together and do not appear to have an order of specific role other than existing. It can represent our worries, our hopes and dreams; it is the fear and joy of the unknown.

Harjo, "Honoring the Spirit of All Things," detail. Photograph by Stephanie Addison.

Harjo, “Honoring the Spirit of All Things,” detail. Photograph by Stephanie Addison.

Some areas of this painting feel more chaotic than others. The middle of the left side feels more active than the white areas on the right. I thought of the white areas as being the calm parts of life. There are not many of these areas that feel calm but they exist in order to give your eyes a break. Each shape and color provided a different emotion and reaction. I found some areas to be more pleasant to look at than others. Some colors were easier to see and some were not. A couple of times I felt like my eyes were playing tricks on me. Some thin lines would blend into another color. Technically this painting is very well made. Each area has very clean lines and even coats of paint. The colors feel organized and never touch the same shade. Instead they are always separated by another color.

If this piece was intended to be personal to the viewer then the meaning that I came up with is this is the “spirit of all things” in regards to life. The face of this spirit is being overtaken by the chaos of the painting much like chaos taking over our lives. We sometimes feel out of control and not able to escape it.

Read student Amber Anderson’s response to Harjo’s painting in an earlier blog post.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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