SHONTO, Ariz. – The late Bahe Whitethorne Jr.’s artwork commanded the 10th annual Rock the Canyon Art and Music Festival, each conveying personality and layers of meaning embedded in each piece.
Bahe Whitethorne, better known as “Buddy,” died on March 26. He was 41. He was the son of prominent local artist Baje Whitethorne Sr. and Priscilla C. Whitethorne, both who live in Flagstaff.
The Rock the Canyon planning committee last year selected Bahe as the featured artist for 2018, following Pauline Bigman for 2017.
“We had started making plans with Buddy on this year’s event,” the committee wrote in an April statement. “Buddy was super excited when we notified him of our choice in selecting him as our featured artist.”
After a consultation with the elder Whitethorne, the committee decided that the festival would move forward and honor Bahe, whose beautiful artworks – now part of the Whitethorne family’s private art collection – reinvented the festival set this year.
The Navajo culture is about moving forward, said Bahe’s aunt, artist Elizabeth Whitethorne-Benally, vice president of Shonto Chapter.
“That’s why we wanted to honor his memory,” said Whitethorne-Benally, who often worked on art projects with her nephew. “It’s still sore and it’s still an open wound. The loss is great. I don’t think he realized how many people he touched. That was one of the discussions, but to go ahead and honor his memory and his work.”
The effects of loss were acute and unique to the artists and musicians at the festival over the weekend. And the grief was there, a gnawing sense of disbelief.
“I’m not sure how to put any of that into words,” said Ed Kabotie, who was good friends with Bahe. “Bahe was everybody’s best friend. He was brilliant, just brilliant. He was a great inspiration to me as a person, as a human being, as an artist – the whole package.”
Kabotie, a Hopi-Tewa artist/musician, says he recently wrote a song with lyrical content that refers to Bahe.
“He brought light to the darkness, food for the soul – inspired us all,” Kabotie said as he recited lines from the song in tears. “‘Keep going and growing, and I hadn’t had a friend like you since I was 16 years old.’ It’s like those friendships that you develop … when you’re young. You never have friendships like that when you’re older. They’re very rare.”
Robert K. Black Jr., manager of the chapter, says Bahe was full of energy. He exhibited that, and everyone he encountered felt it.
“I guess it’s addictive for people who are like that,” Black said, “who have the warmth and the care for people they know, for people they’ve grown up with.”
Black says Bahe attended the festival every year and was always willing to help out, whether it was designing the event poster or designing the event T-shirt.
“He never said no,” Black said. “He was always ahead of our decisions. We got so used to him being here.”
But it is difficult coping with the loss of Bahe, said Jerrel Singer, who was good friends and who often traveled to art shows with the influential artist.
“We’re not going to see him, but his spirit is here,” Singer said. “We’re going to carry on for him. I learned so much just hanging out with Buddy all the time. And we’re doing this for him: We’re going to show his artwork for as long as we can and move forward.”
Bahe’s artworks are rich with history and are visually grand. It is no doubt that Bahe Whitethorne was bigger than Rock the Canyon, which this year was a weeklong event since it has been 10 years, said Black.
“We didn’t really anticipate it to be this long (a decade),” Black explained. “So, that’s what we wanted to celebrate. And also, to recognize people who’ve always been there for us.”
Some of those supporters include, the Arizona Office of Tourism, Great Western Bank (in Chandler, Arizona), Navajo Generating Station, and Peabody Energy.
“They’ve been pretty much our sponsors (that have) been helping us with a lot of the expenses that are involved in putting on something like this … with no admission fee.”
The planning committee does not charge arts and crafts vendors, but charges only the food vendors, many of who do not have a big profit margin due to the nature of the business, according to Black.
“So, we wanted to support them,” he said. “In our case, using our world-renowned artisans and musicians that we’ve come to know … from Shonto so we could use them as a showcase for younger artists and musicians who are up-and-coming. That’s why we selected our friend, Buddy, who was really excited. He was all fired up and gung-ho.”
A decade of Rock the Canyon is no small feat, said Whitethorne-Benally. And over the years thousands of people have visited this small Navajo community where the festival takes place under the cottonwood trees.
Rock the Canyon was established in 2001 by the Shonto Economic Development Corporation to promote Native American artists and musicians, as well as community wellness and sustainability.
This event attracts more than 600 visitors from neighboring communities and towns alike every year.
Last year, rock band Drowning Pool headlined the festival and performed on the Eddie Shootinglady Pavilion.
“The big difference this year is the musical lineup,” Black said. “We had bands that came in from Canada, Washington state, northern California, Albuquerque, and Colorado.”
The Mahasarakham Thai Traditional Dancers from Mahasarakham University in Thailand also traveled here to perform and to share their culture.
“I think it’s word of mouth that they hear about us,” Black added.