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Benjamin Harjo Jr. in his studio in 2010.

Celebrated artist and OSU alumnus Benjamin Harjo Jr. dies at 77

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

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Oklahoma State University lost a member of its Cowboy family over the weekend with the death of prominent Oklahoma artist Benjamin Harjo Jr.

Referred to by many as the “Picasso of Native American art,” Harjo died on Saturday at the age of 77. 

“The passing of Benjamin Harjo Jr., a beloved member of the Oklahoma State community and a renowned Native American artist, marks the loss of a significant treasure for our university and state,” OSU President Kayse Shrum said.  

“Our thoughts and condolences are with his family and friends as we join together to mourn his loss and celebrate his life. Ben’s unique artistic skills, dedication to his beloved Native American heritage and service to our country have profoundly impacted our world, and his legacy will continue to inspire future generations.” 

Harjo graduated from OSU in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in fine art, having begun his studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He went on produce sought-after artworks for more than five decades, with his pieces now part of the Oklahoma State Art Collection, the First Americans Museum, Red Earth Art Center, Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. 

“We were fortunate to exhibit Benjamin Harjo Jr.’s artwork in 2018, exploring his connection to heritage and indigenous communities in 'Benjamin Harjo Jr.: We are a Landscape of All We Know,'” said Vicky Berry, director and chief curator at the OSU Museum of Art.  

“During the exhibition, I remember a child sketching while Harjo was present. He approached her, introduced himself and encouraged her art with gentle guidance. His generous spirit and passion for art inspired everyone he met, leaving an indelible mark on our memories.”

In addition to his 2018 OSU exhibition, Harjo and his wife Barbara served on the Art Advisory Council that worked to establish the OSU Museum of Art in 2011-2012. The museum is now working with the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City to produce a book about Harjo, which is slated for release in 2024.

“We will continue with Barbara and an extensive community of many friends, scholars and artists to assemble a publication that will celebrate the life and art of Benjamin Harjo Jr,” Berry said.

In his artworks, Harjo pulled from his Seminole and Absentee Shawnee heritage while adding contemporary elements that resulted in an artistic style all his own.   

“He came out of the Institute of American Indian Arts at a time when contemporary Native art was being redefined. And I think he contributed to that redefinition,” First Americans Museum Director of Curatorial Affairs heather ahtone told The Oklahoman.  “He didn’t follow a path that was laid before him. He really forged something that was new, drew upon the palette of his Seminole cultural aesthetics but really danced with a line across the page and allowed that line to bring joy to all of us who have seen his work and appreciated it.” 

Among his many honors, Harjo received the 2002 OSU Distinguished Alumni Award, was named the 2003 Red Earth Festival Honored One, was recognized by the OU Health Center foundation in 2009 as an Oklahoma Living Treasure and was inducted into the OSU Alumni Hall of Fame in 2012. 

“As one of only 199 members of the OSU Hall of Fame, the impacts Benjamin Harjo Jr. made on our alma mater and the art world are as numerous as the bright colors in his paintings and prints,” OSU Alumni Association President Ann Caine said. “He was one of the nation’s leading American Indian artists, and he never lost sight of his roots and the education he received at Oklahoma State.” 

Part of that education occurred in the classroom of OSU professor emeritus Marty Avrett, who was just three years Harjo's senior. 

"In 1970, Ben Harjo returned to OSU in order to complete his degree in art after spending three years as a soldier in Vietnam," Avrett said. "He was mature and eager to get on with his life and career. ... He was hungry for information. He worked hard and long."

Avrett explained that Harjo brought Swiss artist Johannes Itten's theory of color into his works, executing it in a way akin to German-born artist Josef Albers. 

"He made a series of abstract paintings that were full of energy and alive with color," Avrett said. "He relied on some traditional motifs and patterns from his Seminole heritage, but shuffled them about into images that were transcendent and uniquely his own. He was my student and that of [former OSU professors] Dale McKinney and Dean Bloodgood, and one of the best. He will be missed by all who knew him."

Ten days before Harjo's passing, Avrett received a message from his former student and friend of more than five decades. 

"The last sentence read, 'My friend, I have absolutely had a wonderful life,'" Avrett said. "When I read it, in my mind’s eye I could see Ben Harjo’s always smiling face." 

To learn more about Benjamin Harjo Jr., visit his website and watch his 2012 OSU Alumni Hall of Fame video.

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