Navajo sand paintings are some of the most important visual arts items in North America. These sand paintings are dry art, meaning they are paintings that don’t require actual paint. These paintings require a certain skill, and for these paintings in particular, cannot be learned quickly.
It takes a lot of skill to make these paintings, but the knowledge is passed on to a select number of people through the generations. These paintings are often done by medicine men, and what makes their work so much more impressive is the fact that they have to make dozens or even hundreds of paintings from memory.
The types of symbols and figures drawn are significant, so the medicine man can’t be foolish or clumsy with his drawings. The Navajo people would prepare the colored sand by having regular sand, and also collecting exotic rocks. These rocks were either used right away, or were further mixed to get the desired color. Blue sand for example, would come from a rock called Criscola. Yellow sand was made from sandstone containing quartz and sand grains. Black sand was created from charcoal or magnetite, which is a form of iron oxide. White sand was made from gypsum, which is almost like limestone but softer, and red sand was made from sandstone of clay.
The medicine man alone wasn’t the only one who would be working on these paintings, as he could have up to 12 people at one time helping him. It is the medicine man who determines the patterns to be used, and is the ‘director’ of sorts. Every person has a small role, as they don’t know all the sand paintings that the medicine man himself knows. White sand from gypsum is the first one placed onto the surface, which forms a base for the painting. Only one color is done at a time, and they go from darker to lighter colors.
The symbols that are drawn are mainly Yei, or the Holy people. A scene must be drawn around the Yei. The Yei symbol looks like a stick figure, but the characteristic feature of these Yei is that they always have each arm raised, elbows bent and palms facing out from them. Their hands are not empty, however, as pine boughs, yucca strips and/or rattles hang from each hand. What they draw to hang from each hand depends on the occasion.
Another common symbol that they may use is the solar cross, which is like a Christian cross but in a circle. The four equal lines extending from a center symbolized the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. There is also the symbol, Kokopelli, which is humanlike not unlike the Yei, but this one is usually hunchbacked, horns on his head and playing a flute. He is a symbol of spreading joy and dancing through his music, and his music is believed to bring about the rain for a successful harvest.
There are many more symbols, and when they are placed on a painting, each element is in harmony with each other making a beautiful piece.