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Visual Arts

David ‘Chethlahe’ Paladin: Painting the Dream

Kilgore American Indian Art featuring work by famed Navajo artist
Kilgore American Indian Art will feature the work and life of famed Navajo painter David “Chethlahe” Paladin on June 15.

Kilgore American Indian Art will soon feature an exhibit focusing on the wide-ranging life and artwork of David “Chethlahe” Paladin.

Paladin’s work was selected because of his influential role in the development of contemporary Native American art, said Tyler Owen Bruce with Kilgore. Beyond his work as an artist, Paladin, who died in 1984, had a twisting, multicultural life that influenced his paintings.

The show will occur in conjunction with Mancos Grand Summer Nights on Saturday.

Paladin was born in 1926 in Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona.

“Born to a Navajo mother and an Anglo father, Paladin was raised in the Navajo and Pueblo traditions, which left a lasting effect upon his art,” reads the biography on his website. His name “Chethlahe” is Navajo for “Little-Turtle-Who-Cries-in-the-Night,” according to the website.

In his early teens, Paladin ran away from the reservation and stowed away on a ship heading for Australia along with his cousin Joe, according to his book, “Painting the Dream: The Shamanic Life and Art of David Chethlahe Paladin.” After World War II began, the two were picked up by U.S. and Australian authorities, and Paladin would then be recruited to the Office of Strategic Services.

During his time in the OSS, Paladin was captured and sent to a “succession of prison camps,” where he suffered through torture and other hardships, Paladin wrote in his book. At one point, a German officer nailed his feet into the floor, which led him to develop gangrene.

“In my experiences as a German prisoner of war, I learned much about the inhumanity of man to man, and also much about love, sharing and attempts to reach out,” he wrote.

Paladin was found by the allied forces at the Dachau prison camp “on a train car loaded with dead bodies,” weighing 62 pounds. He would later testify at the Nuremberg War Trials in 1945 and 1946.

When he returned to the reservation, he was weakened, and it took some encouragement from family and friends before Paladin was ready to embrace life again. He decided to study art and become an artist.

“I bounced around from one art school to another for a while, but I didn’t settle down to be a serious artist until the late 1950s,” Paladin wrote. “Until then, I did a lot of painting, drawing and experimenting with art.”

After becoming more immersed in the art world, he met painters Marc Chagall and Mark Tobey, who inspired Paladin with their methods of painting from their dreams and cultural heritage. He began to use Native American legends as the basis for his work.

“Some may decry the new movement as destructive of ancient and sacred tradition, but if art is to become great, it must be allowed the freedom to evolve,” Paladin wrote. “The Indian artist of today does more than ‘preserve’ his culture. He enhances it with all of his creative ability.”

The Kilgore show, “Painting the Dream: A Retrospective of the Life and Art of David ‘Chethlahe’ Paladin,” will be 4-7 p.m. Saturday. There will be hors d’oeuvres, wine and Navajo fry bread.


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