Bahai News -- Rocky Mountain News - Torkelson: Sand artist has history in his heart

Torkelson: Sand artist has history in his heart

September 15, 2003

The problem would have made no sense to the forebears of Navajo sand painter Mitchell Silas:

Silas had no sand.

"He had to run to Wal-Mart," explained Cara Smoley, organizer of Sunday's tribute to Silas at the Metro Denver Baha'i Center, 225 E. Bayaud Ave.

Silas would use the sand - if he could find some - to give a demonstration of the ancient artistry. But the crowd filling the airy auditorium already had a finished Silas sand painting to admire:

Hanging at center stage was a 6-foot-long sandstone canvas etched in classic Navajo style, depicting Baha'i and Navajo symbols showing God and humanity intersecting as one. Sunday's gathering was to dedicate the $2,500 artwork, which was commissioned by noted Denver artist Rik Sargent, himself a member of the 150-year-old Baha'i faith, which seeks world unity.

Sargent, well used to center stage himself, happily stood on the fringes Sunday to cheer on his protege: "I thought what he did was so cool - creating world art," he said.

Silas is also Baha'i. He converted as a child when a missionary came to Utah's Navajo Reservation to say the ancient native spirituality and the Baha'i ideal of world unity could be practiced together.

His morning sand-run successful, the taciturn Silas got back to take part in a one-hour worship session. Participants offered prayers in various languages, including the tongues of the Navajo and Lakota tribes.

The gathering was a cross-cultural triumph for Silas, who helped generations of kin, all medicine men, in their sand painting rituals. As a child he'd scout for the colorful desert rocks that would be scraped into dust.

In ancient days, a shaman would determine what was wrong with a patient and then create a sand painting. The sufferer would stand over the painting as the shaman "swept" the sickness into it. "We'd pray over the sand, and then take it out and give it to the wind, and the wind takes it away," Silas explained.

Now, Silas sand paints for keeps.

By day a custodian with the Glenwood Springs school district, Silas, 49, is known in art circles for pioneering a way to create permanent sand painting. It's not so difficult, he shrugs - on slabs of sandstone he draws his figures and symbols with ordinary white glue, then sprinkles the colored sands over it.

Ringed by about 60 onlookers, Silas demontrated the ephemeral ancient art on the floor of the Baha'i lobby. First he smoothed ordinary brown sand over a black garbage bag. Nearby was Wilma Thin Elk, a member of the Lakota tribe. Sand painting isn't done by the Lakota - their artistry is beadwork and star quilts.

Silas pinched grains of colored sand in his weathered workman's hands and passed them over the sand. He moved so fast it looked like the vivid figures were materializing underneath his fingers like magic.

Twenty minutes later, the intricate, vibrant art was done - only to be tossed away. Heartbreaking? Not so, Sargent insisted. The beauty of sand painting is in the fact that it passes as swiftly as it comes: "That's the ultimately cool thing," Sargent said. "To the observer, art is a noun - but to the artist, art is a verb."

So what does that make Silas' permanent sand painting? Some might call it both noun and verb - perhaps akin to poetry.

©Copyright 2003, The Rocky Mountain News (CO, USA)

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