Santa Fe Living Treasures – Elder Stories

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James A. McGrath

James A. McGrath

Honored June, 2008








James A. McGrath

“Teacher, mentor, instructor, professor, inspiration, counselor, guide”--all the usual words, even strung together, do not span the contribution that James McGrath has made to students. “Painter, sculptor, poet, writer”--the list only begins to describe his artistic achievements. “Environmentalist, innovator, advocate, citizen of the world”--again the labels fall short. So it goes with Jim, who is even called a “white apple” by some Indians. More on that below.

When he started a teaching career in 1952, in his home state of Washington, he might not have expected that it would lead him to the far corners of the world, and the summit of professional regard. Nor could he know that some students from his first school would still be in touch with him today--along with countless later ones.

From the West Coast he went to Germany, then followed a road map of the world: France, Italy, Ethiopia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Congo, Scotland, England, Turkey, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, more--in no particular order. In some places he taught, in others he brought exhibitions.

Somehow, Santa Fe became his anchor. He first came in 1962, as a founding faculty member of the Institute of American Indian Art. He rose to art director, helped shape many careers, was formative in opening a museum, and taught yearly in Hopi-land. His focus was always art, and he took Indian art worldwide, to great acclaim.

He does personal art as well, with several books of poetry, exhibits in painting and sculpture, essays, articles, television productions. Locally he has been a volunteer at elementary and middle schools, and a retirement center. His students are young, old, and disabled.

His restored historic home in Cieneguilla is energy-independent, and his orchard has been the site of dozens of poetry readings.

“We have a project on the moon,” wrote one admirer. “Would you be interested?” The Hopis affectionately call him a “white apple”--white on the outside, red on the inside. “He is a man who leads with his heart, follows with his heart, and gives from his heart,” says a friend. Adds a former student: “I look at him as living art.”

Story by Richard McCord

Photo © 2008 Steve Northup