In the Arizona art world, Peggy Lanning is a self-taught expert.
With few favors in his early 1970s, Lanning overcame cultural and financial hurdles to secure representation for Native American artists too often looked down upon by status quo gallerists. At that time, many were still convinced that only non-Aboriginal artists were capable of offering serious business relationships.
As a testament to her four decades of effort, Lanning was asked to guest curate a special exhibit featuring renowned Navajo artists. The exhibit, which will premiere Thursday, May 16, and titled “Six Navajo Masters: Abeyta, Begay, Johns, Whitehorse, Whitethorne & Yazzie,” will be presented by the Booth Western Art Museum, located in Cartersville, Georgia, and serves as the country’s largest permanent exhibition space for Western art.
Shortly before Lanning retired as director and owner of the Turquoise Tortoise and Lanning galleries and sold them, Seth Hopkins, director of the Booth Museum, met her and raved about the talent she displayed. .
“He said he’d like to have a show and he’d like to call it ‘Navajo Masters,'” Lanning said. “And I have four of these Navajos right there in my gallery.”
The Turquoise Tortoise, which Lanning opened in 1971 in Phoenix, moved to Sedona in 1981. At that time, the idea behind Lanning Gallery, a must-visit gallery focused less on Indigenous representation and more on fine art and culture. broader contemporary art, had not yet been conceived.
“We grew up together,” Lanning said of the Navajo artists who have been with him from the start. “David Johns has been with me for 40 years and Tony Abeyta for 30. It’s not like I expected them to be big either. We grew up together and then they outgrew the turtle.
Although both Johns and Abeyta have exhibited in much larger galleries, Lanning said, “They won’t be leaving their homes. They do not forget their roots.
According to Lanning, achieving his goals in the art world in his early days meant doubling down on his self-confidence and having enough confidence to weather the storms.
“I was looking behind me and there was nothing but air, so I kind of had to pull my own little red cart, if you will,” she said.
Over the years, Lanning accumulated and maintained a team of around eight employees, eventually including a dedicated IT whiz as gallery management became an increasingly digital affair. Although the staff changed, one fact generally remained the same: Lanning was the only staff member who did not have a college degree.
“I came to the school of hard knocks. But I still signed the checks,” she said brilliantly and laughing.
Inside Lanning’s West Sedona home, which his son Bob designed in 1990, sculptures by Larry Yazzie and earlier works by Johns and Abeyta adorn the entryways and enliven the walls. With them, Lanning delights in visually demonstrating how Aboriginal art is anything but static; although tradition is the deep well from which they draw their inspiration, Navajo artists are always growing, always experimenting.
As an example, Johns transcended his early forte of portraiture to gain a reputation as a master of abstract painting. Lanning suggested that this change might be, at least in part, correlated with Johns’ development as a spiritual leader of his tribe.
“He doesn’t hesitate to tell me, ‘This [portrait] is not someone I know, it is not a photograph. In the Native American tradition, photographing or painting [a person’s] image means you stole their soul, and when they die they can’t take part of their soul with them because it’s on paper.
In a statement, Johns described his artistic process as follows: “My creations on paper or on canvas do not come from a place of preconception. They come from the most secret chambers of my soul. The essence of who I am is a spiritual being. I am a Dine [Navajo] man of the Tl’aashchi’í clan and born for the Kiyaa’áanii clan. Even as I write it, I feel like I’m saying a prayer.
Abeyta was just 17 when he started working with Lanning and used a tell-all quip to introduce her at a recent Northern Arizona University event.
“He stood up and he put his arm around me and he said, ‘I’ve been with Peggy for at least 30 years, and I’ve been an artist for at least 25 years.'”
Lanning emphasized that his enduring relationships with Navajo artists are the result of one guiding principle: to treat the artist with dignity and to evaluate their art fairly.
“At first they would come in with a piece of art that they had done and they would say, ‘Well, I need at least $1,300,'” Lanning recalled. “And I was like, ‘Well, I can’t give you a dime over $1,500’ and they were looking at me, and it was going through, and it was going through, and they were in disbelief, because all the other white people will say “Well, I can’t give you more than $1,000, take it or leave it.”
“They would then ask me why, and I would say, ‘Because I think it’s worth it, I think I can get $3,000 for it.’ They’re still so shocked. Then they were going to tell other Navajo jewelers and carvers – I didn’t go looking for them, they found me.
“I never thought of myself as a curator,” Lanning said of her recent honor at the Booth Museum. “But I have an eye for art, people have always told me that. And it has always saved me.”