Eye on Design Op-ed: Why Can’t the U.S. Decolonize Its Design Education?

Mobile screenshot of the Eye on Design website, featuring a banner design by Sadie Red Wing. Courtesy of Sadie Red Wing.

Back in October, I participated long-distance in the panel “Respectful Design: Decolonization as an Urgent Imperative” as part of the Culture of Criticism Symposium at the national AIGA Conference. Panel organizer Dori Tunstall, Lakota designer Sadie Red Wing, and I were co-creators of a video presented at the panel, and I was streamed in for the Q&A portion. After the conference, writer Margaret Andersen contacted Dori, Sadie, and me for an article she was writing for AIGA’s blog Eye on Design. Her op-ed, Why Can’t the U.S. Decolonize Its Design Education? What truly diverse + inclusive international programs can teach Americans brings attention to the need to include Indigenous visual cultures and voices in design curriculums. A big thanks to Margaret and AIGA for addressing this important subject and bringing it to a wider audience! Dori, Sadie, and I are all quoted in the article, and they included work by some of the designers I mentioned as well: Angel De Cora (1871-1919), Rico Worl, and Chad Earles. Sadie has some beautiful designs featured also. Check it out!

Given the limitations of space and scope, the article wasn’t able to include some of the comments I submitted, so I wanted to be sure to credit the important ways my design professors nurtured my education. Thank you for giving me the freedom to creatively and intellectually explore, which laid the foundation for the work I am doing today. Further comments are below:

Overall, my professors and instructors cared deeply about design and were dedicated to the education and creative development of the students, regardless of background. They emphasized a focus on conceptualization and critical thinking and pushed us to work hard and care about our work. Throughout the program, there was also a consistent thread of the importance of being socially responsible as designers. Through the art department’s visiting artist and scholar lecture series, I had the chance to meet two prominent, socially engaged designers — Luba Lukova and Yossi Lemel. The parameters of many of our class projects gave us room to pursue personal interests; several of my own design projects involved Native subject matter. While at Oregon State, I first began exploring the subject of design as it relates to Indigenous peoples. When I was working on my senior project, the teachers and other students didn’t necessarily have the background to give more involved feedback on what I was doing, but in general, they were supportive. Despite the competitive atmosphere of the design program, my classmates and I helped each other tremendously throughout our time together.

A problem that many schools have, including my alma mater, is that the educational foundation of art and design students overwhelmingly leans toward European art and design history and the work of white artists and designers. Typically, most centers of education in the Americas have Eurocentric curriculums. While most educators inherit this situation with absolutely no ill intent, the truth is, the situation is historically rooted in some very ugly things: white supremacism, genocide, displacement, cultural suppression, and forced assimilation. It’s important to acknowledge this truth and make changes where we can. My school did have a class on Native art history that was occasionally offered, but I would like to see Native histories more fundamentally included in higher education. We are living in the Americas. It’s absurd to leave out the histories, perspectives, and visual cultures of the many diverse groups of people that have been here for thousands of years.

Another subject that I think is important for design educators to explore further is the responsibility involved in using designs from another culture. In the creative industries, while pursuing inspiration, it’s very common to sample ideas and visuals. I know many balk at the subject of misappropriation out of fear of killing creativity, but I don’t think we need to be afraid. I think people could potentially explore designs from another culture, with the caveat that they make the effort to understand what they are using and have the willingness to step back when ethical issues arise. We have to be aware of how imbalances of power can be at play when an individual or group feels entitled to use the creative work of another. It’s important to acknowledge that indigenous peoples have their own legitimate design conventions, where symbols communicate more than just a pretty pattern. Even within a  cultural group, members of that community may observe restrictions in the usage of particular imagery. Not everything is up for grabs. I frequently come across work that is a stereotypical notion of what people think Native art is. I’ve seen questionable “Native” design by both non-Native and Native people. It’s not good design to have misinformed work that isn’t actually communicating anything. If we as designers believe in the importance of content over style, we need to dig deeper. Developing cultural competency will lead to better, more informed work.

Exploring Native Graphic Design: Eunique Yazzie: Design in the Community

Photo of a design project
8 Oz. for You, 8 Oz. for Me, an installation about the negative impact of Arizona’s mining on local water quality.


My article, Exploring Native Design: Eunique Yazzie: Design in the Community, featuring Phoenix-based Navajo designer Eunique Yazzie in issue no. 11, Summer 2016, of First American Art Magazine.

Eunique Yazzie: Design in the Community
by Neebinnaukzhik Southall
As appears in First American Art Magazine

EUNIQUE YAZZIE (NAVAJO) recently launched a creative service company called euniQue, LLC, in Phoenix, Arizona, where she lives with her son. She is Naaneesht’ezhi tachii’nii (Charcoal Streaked Division of the Red Running into Water Clan) born for Ma’ii deesh- giizhinii (Coyote Pass Clan). She grew up on and off the Navajo reservation.

When Yazzie was attending Chinle High School, her graphic design teacher, an older cousin, asked, “Have you given any thought on what you’re going to do for your profession or career?” Her teacher/cousin gave Eunique a pamphlet for a design school, which at the time was a dazzling example of fast-paced design work and cutting- edge technology. Her father, a talented sketch artist, commented that had such an option been available when he was younger, it would have been his path. Eunique enrolled in and graduated from Al Collins Graphic Design School.

At her first job at Sodexo, a food services and facilities management company, she handled the design and brand management for 43 dining and market establishments for Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, and other clients. Later, at The Arizona Republic, she designed ads and eventually moved on to the parent company Republic Direct, where she created designs for major clients and developed prepress concepts. She has also worked with Red Note, Inc., National Urban Indian Family Coalition, the Visionary Business Magazine, and American Indian organizations at Arizona State.

A major project for her was rebranding the Phoenix Indian Center. “I love teaching people about the power of color, the power of design, especially when you are really trying to communicate to a certain population,” says Yazzie. She standardized the center’s typefaces; adjusted their logo; designed new business cards, letterhead, and envelopes; and most importantly, developed a new vibrant color palette to appeal to a broader audience, particularly youth. The colors correspond to particular departments and programs. “Prickly Pear Red,” an attractive hue, now represents the center.

Eunique also serves as the director of marketing for Palabras Librería Bookstore, an intercultural, nonprofit library, bookstore, and community space serving English and Spanish speakers. In addition to their logo, she recently created a mural for the children’s nook that incorporates a map of Phoenix and the Southwest, local flora, and interactive wooden pieces with numbers corresponding to 28 different Indigenous languages in the Southwest.

“I wanted everybody to see that we have this rich mix of culture in this area, and that English isn’t the primary language in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and California,” she says.

In Phoenix, she appreciates the cross-pollination of ideas she experiences when mingling and working with diverse groups of people. She regularly attends and participates in local art
and design events such as the Phoenix chapter of CreativeMornings and the annual Phoenix Design Week. She savors the opportunity to learn and teach as well as advocate for others. Yazzie encourages Native designers to not isolate themselves but rather engage with the larger design community. She would like to see more Natives at local design events.

“We need to be more present,” Eunique says. “We need to be in those spaces where we are not represented. We need to show people that we are here, that we have ideas, we have voices.”

Having experienced the difficulties of alternating from insider to outsider in various situations, Eunique stresses that designers cannot let insecurities or other people’s issues hold them back. “I am here for a purpose, just as much as the next person has a purpose.”

Collaboration is important, too. “We’re not all cut out to do it all,” says Yazzie. “If we are growing as a collective community rather than individuals, we are going to grow faster.”

Having lived on and off the reservation, she sees the need for individuals to take what they learn back to their communities. “There needs to be a cycle,” she says. Recently, her aforementioned cousin asked her to help judge a design competition at Chinle High School. “I drove away almost in tears because it was such an emotional coming-back story—reflecting on my whole path as a designer.”

I asked her how young Native students can prepare for a career in design. “Right now you should be teaching them the fundamentals of design,” says Yazzie. While technical skills are important, a focus on production is not enough. Conceptual thinking is foundational to good design. “It’s really the idea that makes you a standout designer,” emphasizes the artist.

Eunique would like to see young Native designers take pride in what they do because “we have lineages that are based in design. We as Native Americans understand art, not just on a personal level but a community level, because it’s part of our community—that’s what holds us together.” She credits the prevalence of Navajo graphic designers and her own successes in commercial art to Navajo art practices.

“I think that rug weaving plays a big picture in design … Rug weaving is very technical. My grandmother was a famous rug weaver. I would watch her and I would see how methodical she was about it. And it wasn’t that she was putting yarn together just to put yarn together. It had a purpose, and it was telling a story. Rugs are pretty much stories of locations. They’re stories of people, they’re stories of families, they’re stories of a really rich, embedded culture. There are specific names for them, and there are specific names for designs in them.”

Eunique shared a moment where this cultural practice allowed for communication between her and her grandmother, who was going to create Eunique a biil, or rug dress, for her high school graduation. “I had drawn out this design that I wanted. And she just looked at me and she shook her head.” Her grandmother spoke only Navajo, and Eunique could speak only English.

“I had my mom explain to her the design that I gave to her means something to me, and it means I want to be different. I don’t want to be the same as everyone, but I still want to have my rug dress. I still want to have that cultural part of me, but I also want to make it my own. And then she kind of smiled, and so she did it.” The rug dress was bright green, which Eunique wore with dyed green hair to match. “It was my expression of who I was, and I’m glad that she understood that and she was happy with it. We had a moment where we had an understanding of each other in that rug.

“If you have [weaving] in your family line, your grandmother was super smart, because there is a lot of math that goes into those rugs, there is a lot of counting, there are a lot of processes. Grandmothers, just knowing when to split a design so that it equally matches, not just in the number of lines that they’re putting down but the space in between each of their designs—just the technicality by memory is amazing. I am proud to come from that. It makes me really appreciate what I do.” When people ask why she likes design and where it comes from, Eunique says, “It’s in my blood. I know design because I saw it all around me.”


Exploring Native Graphic Design: Not Another Mascot Article


My article, Exploring Native Design: Not Another Mascot Article, which explores the intersection of Native peoples and sports in, I hope, a new way, by centering the discussion on positive design by both Native and non-Native designers. Issue no. 10, Spring 2016, of First American Art Magazine.

Not Another Mascot Article
by Neebinnaukzhik Southall
As appears in First American Art Magazine

SPORTS ARE UBIQUITOUS in Indian Country and beyond: basketball, hockey, lacrosse … Who hasn’t heard of rez ball? We have excellent Native athletes of all ages representing our people on both Native and non-Native teams at amateur and professional levels. Many of my relatives from Rama First Nation play sports.

There are plenty of die-hard fans to go around, too. Some proudly wear logos of their teams worked into beaded medallions. Like everyone else, Natives get into the rivalry. I know one sweet grandma from Cochiti Pueblo who yells at the TV when her teams are playing.

But most mainstream discussions about Native Americans and sports seem to revolve around negative depictions used in logos by non-Native teams. The effects of stereotypical and demeaning names, imagery, and chants have been widely debated. A less-considered aspect is how these names and images often fail from a design standpoint. What makes a good logo? Memorability, distinctiveness, simplicity, wide application, and relevancy. A good one isn’t trite, but for many sports logos that exist today, the same man may as well have posed
for all of them—with feathers in his braids or wearing a headdress, regardless of geographic region. And many teams have the same names: Warriors, Indians, Chiefs, and Braves (or worse!). Tomahawks and arrowheads abound. What I wouldn’t give to see a ball-headed war club! From a branding standpoint, these choices do not set these teams apart as distinctive or memorable. Hundreds of teams are guilty of this, mostly at the high school level, but even certain infamous professional teams lack unique branding. Native teams also fall into this trap.

Some conclude that all outsider references to Indigenous cultures are automatically wrong. Some refuse to acknowledge problems or make changes, conflating the bad with the good. Both ideas privilege ignorant choices as the only options. Referring to Native American cultures need not be problematic. I argue for greater incorporation of Native visuals in sports, not only for Native teams, but non-Native teams as well—in a knowledgeable, respectful, and design-savvy way, of course.

When it comes to incorporating cultural references to represent Native teams, the value is readily apparent. Many Native children begin playing sports at on-reservation schools. Virtually every tribe has at least one sports team. Sports can build self-esteem, confidence, perseverance, and even cultural pride.

From the young women’s Team Kivalliq hockey jerseys, which denote the inuksuk from the Nunavut flag, to a variety of team uniforms in the Little Native Hockey League in Ontario, to participants in basketball competitions across the continent, clear references are made to specific communities and cultures. Many jerseys include Indigenous patterns, borders, and other motifs. These teams serve as proud ambassadors of their communities.

In Native hands, even a Native mascot, if done right, can work as a representation of power and pride. The Iroquois Nationals logo, an eagle dancer, was designed by one of the founders, Oren Lyons (Onondaga Nation), a lacrosse player, painter, former commercial artist, traditional faithkeeper, and chief. Tracey Anthony (Mississauga-Delaware from Six Nations) has depicted strong Iroquois men in his designs, such as the Six Nations Rivermen logo. And Daryn Smith (Seneca) used the human form in his Seneca Warchiefs logo. All these emblems were created specifically for their communities. Certain uniforms strongly convey a sense of pride. The Iroquois teams often allude to the Iroquois flag. And why not? Lacrosse, an Indigenous game, is strongly rooted in their history.

A reimagining of the Chicago Blackhawks logo as a raptor instead of a person by Mike Ivall (Ojibwe) from 2007 recently resurfaced and made the rounds on social media, reaching millions of viewers. For many, it proved there are obvious alternatives when it comes to mascots. As for Mike, he is now a photographer with OHL Images and designs hockey jerseys.

The Nike N7 program and N7 Fund, which promote health among Native youth through athletics, has shown how a major sportswear company can collaborate with Native people. Nike employee Sam McCracken (Fort Peck Sioux-Assiniboine) was instrumental in its creation. While Nike could expand its efforts to include more Native designers and artists in the creation of their shoe and apparel designs, the visuals used have often resonated with Native communities. Several Native graphic designers have also done work for N7. At Oregon State University, my alma mater, the Beavers men’s basketball team, including Joe Burton (Soboba Luiseño), played with special turquoise N7 jerseys in 2010. In 2013, Nike released uniforms for
five NCAA basketball teams, including Oregon State.

One significant collaboration among Natives and non-Natives involved minor league baseball team the Spokane Indians, the Spokane Tribe of the Spokane Reservation, and Brandiose,
a sport design company. The company created two versions of a new logo in 2006, one exclusively in the Salish language. In 2014, they created jersey alternates for home games with the Salish word for Spokane, Sp’q’n’i, splashed across the chest and the Salish logo on the sleeve. These became the team’s primary home jerseys for 2015. Teams can build positive relationships rather than merely seek a stamp of approval from tribes.

In 2005, the now-defunct Chilliwack Bruins, a junior ice hockey team from British Columbia, recruited artist Stan Greene (Semiahmoo-Chehalis-Nez Perce) to design a shoulder patch with a stylized bear in honor of the Stó:lo Nation, on whose traditional homelands the team resided. Sports teams have strong local followings, and what says local more than Indigenous, after all? In 2010, the team released a third jersey featuring the design front and center at a special First Nations home game. The logo proved more visually iconic and relevant than their C logo.

The Seattle Seahawks logo was a hot topic in 2014. The Burke Museum speculated that the inspiration for the NFL team’s original logo was a Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask. With the two images placed side by side, the resemblance became clear, and the inspiration has since been confirmed. The mask was located at the University of Maine’s Hudson Museum. With funds raised through Kickstarter, the Burke brought the mask to the museum to be exhibited in Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired. At the mask’s unveiling, artist and designer Andy Everson (Kwakwaka’wakw-K’ómoks) danced to welcome the mask. While the Seattle Seahawks have at times been criticized for using Northwest Coast formline instead of the Coast Salish design of the area, they have proved to be a popular team among Native Americans, inspiring many artistic renditions.

Adidas recently made waves by offering to redesign problematic identities for high schools. However, the caveat of contracting with them for three years for gear is likely cost prohibitive, despite interest. I challenge my fellow Native graphic designers: Let’s seize the opportunity, pitch our own talents, and show them what Native design is all about!

AIGA Design Journeys: Angel DeCora

Portrait of Angel DeCora
Angel De Cora, portrait accompanying her essay “Native Indian Art” in Proceedings of the First Conference of the Society of American Indians, 1911. Her buckskin dress is Great Plains-style, not of her own Winnebago culture. (Photo by Gustave Hensel at the Carlisle Indian School, 1907)

Check out AIGA’s Design Journey’s article on early Winnebago (Ho-chunk) graphic designer, illustrator, and educator Angel De Cora, which I wrote: http://www.aiga.org/diversity-inclusion-design-journeys-essay-angel-decora

The full, final version of the article, which AIGA opted to not post, appears as below, with footnotes included:

Angel De Cora
by Neebinnaukzhik Southall

Angel De Cora was an artist, illustrator, graphic designer, and educator, born in a wigwam in Nebraska on the Winnebago Indian reservation in approximately 1868.(i) She was of Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) and French Canadian heritage on both sides of her family, the granddaughter of Winnebago chief Little Decora and the great-grand-daughter of chief Old Grey-Headed Decorah (White War Eagle) on her father’s side.(ii) Her Winnebago name was Hinook-Mahiwi-Kalinaka (Fleecy Cloud Floating in Space), and she was a member of the Thunderbird clan.

In 1883, Angel was kidnapped from her family and taken thousands of miles away to the Hampton Institute in Virginia, which had instated a boarding school for Native Americans.(iii) As official United States government policy, Indian boarding schools were created to “civilize” Native American children, with the goal of stripping them of their cultures, severing their family and tribal connections, and assimilating them into Euro-American society. These schools were often rampant with abuse. Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the first off-reservation boarding school, the Carlisle Indian School, is infamous for his guiding principle, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Despite being educated to devalue Indigenous cultures, Angel De Cora created sympathetic, humanizing depictions of Native peoples throughout her life’s work and advocated for the value and respect of Native American art and design.

At Hampton, Angel De Cora performed well and was generally liked.(iv) After five years, she returned home briefly as part of government regulations, but came back to Hampton in Fall 1888, graduating in 1891.(v) She was then sponsored to attend the Burnham Classical School for Girls in Northampton, Massachusetts.(vi) However, she become uncomfortable with the elitist atmosphere and left the school to attend the School of Art at Smith College in 1892,(vii,viii) also in Northampton, where she was one of their first Native students.(ix) At Smith, she studied under Dwight William Tryon, a well-known tonalist landscape painter.(x, xi)  She also worked at the college’s Hillyer Art Gallery, earning her tuition as a custodian.(xii) She received several awards for her work upon her graduation in 1896.(xiii)

After Smith, she was admitted to the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in Philadelphia, in September 1896.(xiv) Here, she studied illustration under the famous American illustrator Howard Pyle, who produced many well-known illustrators(xv) and considered her a genius.(xvi) In 1897, the summer after her first year, Angel went to Fort Berthold, North Dakota, following Pyle’s encouragement to paint and draw Native people.(xvii) The following summer, she attended a special course of his as the recipient of a competitive scholarship.(xviii) Due to his connections, she wrote and illustrated two stories for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, “The Sick Child” in the February 1899 issue, and “Grey Wolf’s Daughter” in the November 1899 issue, both featuring Native American girls as the protagonists.(xix)

In 1899, she briefly studied at the Cowles Art School in Boston with Joseph DeCamp, then attended the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School in February 1900, studying under Frank Benson and Edmund C. Tarbell, where she “was awarded an honorable mention in the Concours Scholarships for 1900 and 1901.”(xx)

In her short autobiography, Angel discusses her transition from fine art to commercial art, beginning at the Drexel Institute; she also expressed her belief in the in-born creative talent of Native people (xxi):

While at this Institute I used to hear a great deal of discussion among the students, and instructors as well, on the sentiments of “Commercial” art and “Art for art’s sake.” I was swayed back and forth by the conflicting views, and finally I left Philadelphia and went to Boston. I had heard of Joseph DeCamp as a great teacher, so I entered the Cowles Art School, where he was the instructor in life drawing. Within a year, however, he gave up his teaching there but he recommended me to the Museum of Fine Arts in the same city, where Frank Benson and Edmund C. Tarbell are instructors, and for two years I studied with them.

I opened a studio in Boston and did some illustrative work for Small & Maynard Company, and for Ginn & Company. I also did some designing although while in art schools I had never taken any special interest in that branch of art. Perhaps it was well that I had not over studied the prescribed methods of European decoration, for then my aboriginal qualities could never have asserted themselves.

I left Boston and went to New York City, and while I did some illustrating, portrait and landscape work, I found designing a more lucrative branch of art.

Although at times I yearn to express myself in landscape art, I feel that designing is the best channel in which to convey the native qualities of the Indian’s decorative talent.

As a commercial artist, Angel was involved with a number of book projects. She worked on Old Indian Legends, first published in 1901 by Ginn & Company, featuring Dakota stories retold by her friend Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), a Yankton writer, musician, and activist. Angel produced a cover design reminiscent of Plains beaded blanket strips, and she painted many illustrations to accompany the stories. Angel designed the cover The Middle Five: Indian Boys at School, published by Small, Maynard & Company in 1901. The author was Francis LaFlesche, who was of Omaha, Ponca and French heritage; the son of Omaha chief Joseph LaFlesche; and the first Native American ethnologist. The book captured his time at a mission school. The cover features a stylized scene of two tipis, with a bow and several arrows as border motifs. Angel also produced an illustration for the frontispiece, an emotionally charged painting depicting a Native American boy in a school uniform comforting another boy, a recent arrival in Native dress, who covers his face while he weeps. For Mary Catherine Judd’s book Wigwam Stories Told by North American Indians, published in 1904 by Ginn & Company, she designed the cover and the title page, and produced a number of illustrations as well as a plethora of charming initial letters, many of which conceptually match the stories.

Angel produced a number of designs for The Indian’s Book, published in 1907 by Harper and Brothers Publishers, which features a collection of songs and stories from diverse Native American ethnic groups across the continent, gathered by Natalie Curtis. The book received national attention, and included an introductory note from president Theodore Roosevelt. Angel designed the main title page with stylized eagles as a way to collectively represent the broad content of the book, the concept of which is described in the book:

The title-page, by Angel De Cora, (Hinook Mahiwi Kilinaka), has for the motive of its design an adaption of an old Indian design which represents in highly conventionalized form the Eagle, and the Eagle’s Song. The soaring eagle is seen in the grey figure whose points are the two out-spread wings, with the tail in the centre. The paler spot at the top of the figure is the eagle’s head; from the beak rises the song – waving lines which broaden out as the song floats on the air. The whole symbol is used in decorative form throughout the page, two eagles being joined together by the tips of wings and tails to form a symmetrical design. In the centre of the page, at the top and bottom, and at the sides, is seen the eagle-symbol, while the page is framed, as it were, in the symbol of the song.

The eagle is loved and revered by the Indians. He is the strongest of all birds. He soars aloft, and he may look upon the sun, the giver of life, the celestial emblem of divine force. Therefore has the symbol of the Eagle and the Eagle’s Song been chosen for the title-page of “The Indians’ Book.”

Angel also created lettering and borders for the title pages of the book, which complemented the drawings of other contributing Native artists and referenced the diverse design conventions of their respective tribes. At the time, the publishers had not seen this sort of inspired lettering before.(xxii) She also presumably designed the cover, which clearly draws from the abstract, geometric designs created on parfleche bags by Plains Indians.

In 1906, she was offered a position to teach Native American art at the Carlisle Indian School by Francis E. Leupp, Commissioner of Indian Affairs.(xxiii) This appointment represented a major policy shift for the institution.(xxiv,xxv) At Carlisle, she developed a program to teach the students characteristic designs from a variety of North American Indigenous cultures. An important function of her program was to build the self-esteem of the students and instill pride in their heritage.(xxvi)

Angel frequently traveled, giving talks and presenting papers at conferences on Native American art and design. The Arts and Crafts movement gave Angel a vehicle to promote the value of Native American art and design, as she expressed in her speech for the Twenty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian and other Dependent Peoples in 1907:

The art department of Carlisle has taken a departure from the regular routine work of public schools. We do not study any of the European classics in art. We take the old symbolic figures and forms which we find on beadwork, pottery, and baskets for the basis of our study. We are familiarizing ourselves with the different styles and methods; then we create designs according to these old established methods and apply them to the products of the workshops of the school in such ways as wood-carving, printer’s borders, metal work, wall decoration, weaving and needlework.

There is a general revival throughout the country of the old handicrafts and skilled hands are in demand. Let me tell you that the Indian is an apt pupil for any sort of handicraft. The basket and textile weavers, pottery and metal workers are already well established. Each of these industries can be expanded in various directions both for utility and ornament. The simple dignity of Indian design lends itself well to ways of conventional art and I think the day has come when the American people must pause and give recognition to another phase of the Indian’s nature which is his art.(xxvii)

Angel was a member of the Society of American Indians, one of the first Native-led Native American rights organizations, and she also designed a logo for the Society.(xxviii) At the First Annual Conference of the Society of American Indians in 1912, she gave a presentation, “Native Indian Art,” speaking of Native peoples collectively, which included her aesthetic philosophies, the value of Native American designs as equal to any other tradition, the design characteristics of various tribes, discussion of her work with students at Carlisle, and the potential for wide commercial application of these designs:

The nature of Indian art is formed on a purely conventional and geometric basis, and our endeavors at the Carlisle Indian School have been to treat it as a conventional system of designing.… By this development all the page ornamentations of the Carlisle school magazine, the Red Man, were made by the pupils. We have made stencil designs for the friezes and draperies, designs for rugs, embroideries, applique, wood carving, tiles, and metal work. We not only have produced the designs, but they have been applied whenever we had the material at hand. Rugs, draperies, sofa cushion covers and smaller articles were designed and made by the girls of the Art Department and the boys of the Art Department under Mr. Dietz, who is also a trained artist, have done all the pen and ink decorations for the Red Man, such as the page borders, initial letters and other page ornaments. In the metal work Indian designs were wrought in silver jewelry, copper and brass trays in all the novelty shapes.

The Indian designs modified and applied to interior house decoration are especially in harmony with the so-called “mission” style, the geometric designs lend themselves well to the simple and straight lines of mission furniture.… By careful study and close application many hundred designs have been evolved. Many of these designs have been thrown upon the market of the country and each one has brought its financial reward, but more than that, from these small and unassuming ventures, we have drawn the attention of artists and manufacturers to the fact that the Indian of North America possessed a distinctive art which promises to be of great value in a country which heretofore has been obliged to draw its models from the countries of the eastern hemisphere.… Manufacturers are now employing Indian designs in deteriorated forms. If this system of decoration was better understood by the designers, how much more popular their products would be in the general market.

An Indian with the technical training of a good art school would readily find employment with establishments that employ designers.… As all peoples have treasured the history of their wanderings in some form, so has the American Indian had his pictograph and symbolic records, and with the progress of time he has evolved it into a system of designing, drawing his inspiration from the whole breadth of his native land.

Angel participated in several exhibitions throughout the years, including the 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exhibition (for which she produced designs for furniture), the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, and the Jamestown Tercentennial in 1907, which showed her student’s work.(xxx,xxxi)

At the end of December 1907 in New Jersey, Angel married the younger William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, a student at Carlisle who presented himself as a Native American.(xxxii) He became her assistant at the school soon after.(xxxiii) Together, they collaborated on a number of projects. They illustrated Yellow Star: A Story of East and West, published in 1911 by Little, Brown, and Company and written by Elaine Goodale Eastman, the wife of Dr. Charles Eastman (Ohíye S’a), a Santee-Sioux physician. They also collaborated on The Little Buffalo Robe, written by Ruth Everett Beck and published in 1911. Dietz became involved with the school’s publications, including The Indian Craftsman, later renamed The Red Man, which was launched February 1909.(xxxiv) Notably, this publication was printed by Native students, and many of the designs and illustrations in the magazine were produced by students in Angel’s program. While Dietz illustrated the bulk of the covers, Angel created the September 1913 cover illustration of The Red Man (Vol 6., No. 1), entitled “Indian Nurse.” She also modeled for a photograph which her husband used in his cover illustration of the November 1912 issue of The Red Man (Vol. 5, No. 3). (xxxv)

Following the dissolution of the Indian art department and an investigation that engulfed the school, Angel left Carlisle in 1915 to further pursue her career as an artist. In 1918, she and Dietz divorced.(xxxvii) The same year, she illustrated Devonian fauna for the New York State Museum.(xxxviii) While Angel had artistic ambitions yet, she became ill and died of pneumonia and influenza in February 1919.

In the Summer 1919 issue (Vol. 7, No. 2) of The American Indian Magazine, produced by the Society of American Indians, her friend Zitkala-Ša, the editor, recognized Angel for her gift of $3,000 to the Society of American Indians in her will and expressed gratitude: “Angel DeCora Dietz, living and dying, has left us a noble example of devotion to our people. Let us take heed. Let us prove our worth even as she has done.”(xxxix) The same issue features illustrations of Angel’s accompanying an article written by Dr. Charles Eastman, “The American Eagle: An Indian Symbol,” discussing the significance and symbology of the eagle and its feathers, a subject which is just as timely today, in the light of the still-present issue of cultural appropriation. The illustrations include a number of eagle feathers and a full-page portrait of a Native man wearing a headdress.

Following her death, a number of eulogies recognized Angel and her work. Throughout her career, Angel was frequently mentioned in the press, though unfortunately, as the result of being a Native woman, she was often romanticized and stereotyped. Though forgotten for many years, Angel De Cora is now receiving the serious attention and discussion she deserves. As scholar Yvonne N. Tiger concludes in her master’s thesis, Angel de Cora: Her Career as an Art Instructor and Her Racialized Perspectives While Employed at Carlisle, 1906-1915:

De Cora left behind a wonderful legacy for Indian people. In her art, one can see the difficult path that she walked; De Cora had both feet and mind firmly planted in the white world, while her heart struggled with what it meant to be an Indian. This struggle played itself out in her ideas on teaching Indian art.  Her art and illustrations are an important part of Indian and art history.” In one of her speeches, Angel de Cora said, “There is no reason why the Indian workman should not have his own artistic mark on what he produces.” As an assimilated Indian artist and educator, De Cora left her indelible mark on her work. Her pioneering efforts resulted in the implementation of art programs in Indian boarding schools across the country, and, many years later, led to a renaissance in Indian art. Angel de Cora was responsible for the earliest efforts geared towards the preservation of Indian art.(xxxx)

Indeed, a hundred years later, much of her work and intellectual explorations are relevant to graphic designers today.

Recommended Reading:

  • Fire Light: The Life of Angel De Cora, Winnebago artist, by Linda M. Waggoner
  • “Angel DeCora’s Cultural Politics,” The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890-1915, by Elizabeth Hutchinson
  • “Angel DeCora: American Artist and Educator” by Sarah McAnulty, in Nebraska History Volume 57, No. 2 (Summer 1976), pp. 143-199.
  • American Indian Artist Angel DeCora: Aesthetics, Power, and Transcultural Pedagogy in the Progressive Era, by Suzanne Alene Shope, (2009). Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers. Paper 113.
  • Angel de Cora: her assimilation, philosophies, and career as an art instructor while employed at Carlisle, 1906-1915 (Unpublished master’s thesis) by Yvonne N. Tiger (2008), University of Oklahoma, Bizzell Memorial Library, Peggy V. Helmerich Reading Room.

i)  Linda M. Waggoner, Fire Light: The Life of Angel De Cora, Winnebago Artist (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 3
ii) Ibid., 3-6.
iii) Ibid., 24-27.
iv) Ibid., 30.
v) Sarah McAnulty, “Angel de Cora: American Indian Artist and Educator,” Nebraska History 57, no. 2 (1976): 143-199. Accessed at http://www.tfaoi.org/aa/4aa/4aa27.htm
vi) Ibid
vii) Linda M. Waggoner, Fire Light, 58-58.
viii) Sarah McAnulty, “Angel de Cora.”
ix) Linda M. Waggoner, Fire Light, 68.
x) Sarah McAnulty, “Angel de Cora.”
xi) Linda M. Waggoner, Fire Light, 60-62.
xii) Ibid., 59.
xiii) Ibid., 68.
xiv) Ibid., 69-70.
xv) Ibid., 69.
xvi) Ibid., 79.
xvii) Sarah McAnulty, “Angel de Cora.”
xviii)  Linda M. Waggoner, M. Fire Light, 76.
xix) Ibid., 75-82.
xx) Sarah McAnulty, “Angel de Cora.”
xxi) Angel DeCora, “Angel DeCora – An Autobiography,” The Red Man, March 1911, 280-285.
xxii) Linda M. Waggoner, Fire Light, 129.
xxiii) Angel DeCora, “Angel DeCora – An Autobiography.”
xxiv) Linda M. Waggoner, Fire Light, 132-133.
xxv) Elizabeth Hutchinson, The Indian Craze. Primitivism, Modernism, and the Transculturation in American Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 202-203.
xxvi) Ibid., 203-204.
xxvii) Proceedings of the Twenty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian and other Dependent Peoples, Lake Mohonk Conference, 1907, 16-18
xxviii) Linda M. Waggoner, Fire Light, 194-195.
xxix) Angel DeCora, “Native Indian Art,” Report of the Executive on the Proceedings of the First Annual Conference of the Society of American Indians Held at the University of Ohio, Columbus, Ohio – October 12-17, 1911, I (Washington, D.C.: Society of American Indians, 1912), 85-87.
xxx) Elizabeth Hutchinson, The Indian Craze, 200-202.
xxxi) Sarah McAnulty, “Angel de Cora.”
xxxii) Linda M. Waggoner, Fire Light, 153-154.
xxxiii)  Ibid., 159.
xxxiv) Ibid., 164-175.
xxxv) Tom Benjey, Keep A-goin’: The Life of Lone Star Dietz (Carlisle, PA: Tuxedo Press, 2006), 72-75
xxxvi) Linda M. Waggoner, Fire Light, 210-236.
xxxvii) Sarah McAnulty, “Angel de Cora.”
xxxviii)  Ibid.
xxxix) Society of American Indians. The American Indian Magazine. (Washington, D.C.: Society of American Indians, 1919), 62
xxxx) Yvonne N. Tiger, (2008). Angel de Cora: her assimilation, philosophies, and career as an art instructor while employed at Carlisle, 1906-1915 (Unpublished master’s thesis), 30. University of Oklahoma, Bizzell Memorial Library, Peggy V. Helmerich Reading Room.

Exploring Native Graphic Design: Rico Worl

rico_worl_1 rico_worl_2

My article, Exploring Native Design: Rico Worl, featuring an interview iwth Tlingit/Athabaskan designer Rico Worl of Trickster Company in the Winter 2015/2016 issue of First American Art Magazine.

Rico Worl
by Neebinnaukzhik Southall
As appears in First American Art Magazine

RICO LANÁAT ́ WORL is a Tlingit-Athabascan designer and artist of the Lukaax.ádi (Sockeye) clan of the Raven moiety. He was born in Anchorage, grew up in Fairbanks, attended high school in Anchorage, and spent his summers in Juneau.

In July 2014, Rico opened a store- front in Juneau for Trickster Company. Named for the trickster Raven, his company carries Native Northwest Coast art and design products, many
of which are designed by Rico and his younger sister Crystal Worl. Trickster Company products are available all along the West Coast, as far away as Australia, and online.

Rico’s talents manifest in many forms: handmade jewelry in gold, silver, and other metals; laser-cut earrings; sunglasses; skateboard, longboard, and snowboard decks; playing cards, serigraphs, and art cards; apparel and more. Recently, two of his boards depicting the Raven and the Eagle exhibited in the Burke Museum’s Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired, and his four Chilkat Pattern Boards were displayed at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, now on loan to the Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology. Alaska Governor Bill Walker and Lt. Governor Byron Mallott gave basketballs designed by Rico to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry on their recent Alaskan visit.

How did Trickster Company come to be?

Trickster Company started about four years ago. The seed project was when I painted my own longboard. I wasn’t a huge boarder or anything, but I just wanted to represent my heritage in one of my day-to-day interests. Then I painted one for my cousin. And one for another cousin. The interest in the boards grew steadily. However, the problem with the paintings was that none of my customers were comfortable using them in the way I used my longboard, so I started manufacturing them. I designed skateboards not because I was big into boarding, but because I was big into designing as a means of representing. So, I continued designing various things that were a part of my life and I knew were part of other people’s lives.

The playing cards brought it up to the next level. I did a Kickstarter to fund the Trickster Company playing cards in 2013. It was about a five-month project designing the cards and then the campaign. It was very successful, reached the initial goal within days, and reached a stretch goal requiring double the funding for a second deck (the Tlingit Language Edition). We had about 500 backers and raised $17,000. It wasn’t a huge moneymaker, but it validated my work. It gave me a solid product base to work from and expand outward. It was also a huge deal to be able to go to a bank afterward and say, “Look at how many people were so interested in my product [that] they put money down before the product was made.”

At the same time all this happened, my sister was at the Institute of American Indian Arts. So, it was good timing after my sister graduated with her BFA in 2014 to open a brick-and-mortar shop here in downtown Juneau.

What has been foundational to your direction as a designer and an artist?

I would say learning formline design. The traditional design system of the Northwest Coast has always been the goal. I make these products as a student of formline. Each piece is a study. Whether it’s skate decks, card decks or jewelry, each piece is a bit of experimentation in the form and function of formline.

When did you start to design? Have you had formal training, or are you self-taught?

Art is integral to the culture. I couldn’t point out a moment when I suddenly started designing. I got more serious in 2003 when I started studying at the Native Arts Center at University of Alaska Fairbanks with Alvin Eli Amason [Sugpiaq]. That was a very eye-opening experience for me as an artist. I realized there was potential to actually make things that I envision into reality. I was at UAF for about a year before I left to get my anthropology degree from University of Pennsylvania. I’ve had bits of training here and there, but I am self-taught with the assistance of many experiences such as UAF, various work- shops, working with the collections at the Museum at U. Penn, working with various artists in my life, etc. Lots of tying small, educational experiences together to build upon.

What are your tools of the trade? When did you begin working digitally?

The foundational tool, no matter what the end product might be, is a Paper Mate SharpWriter #2. I love these mechanical pencils. A sketch, then a drawing, is the designer’s blueprint for production.

I began learning digital design in high school. A friend showed me Macromedia Flash (a now dying platform!). I made a lot of crude animations for fun with friends. When I worked for the Sealaska Heritage Institute,

I developed a series of interactive language learning games with Flash, as well as Photoshop. Then I learned Adobe Illustrator for various design projects. When I came home, I was still doing various small projects on my own using those same programs.

Do you have any particular creative heroes?

Robert Davidson (Haida) is my hero. Every time I look at his work, I am blown away. Even a single painting gives incredible insights into his mastery of formline, which is incredibly inspiring.

Why do some designs imitative of formline miss the mark?

Imagine a person who looks at a piece of furniture—a gorgeous piece made by a master craftsman—and tries to imitate it. The imitation would have loose joints, and any carving work would be rough and lack any grace; drawers wouldn’t slide out properly; it might not bear the load of a person sitting on it, etc. There’s a lot of things that make a piece of furniture successful, from being structurally sound, to being beautiful. The same thing can be said about formline. The formline needs to be built with the correct joints, the parts need to relate properly, and in the end it needs to be made beautifully.

Screen printing emerged among Native Northwest Coast artists in the 1960s. What was your introduction to screen printing?

Both my sister and my girlfriend are into screen printing. Screen printing is a natural fit with formline. Traditionally, formline is created with a primary, secondary, and tertiary color. So working with layers to create a multicolored print was an easy fit to the medium. It also allowed for reproduction with very nice, clean designs that formline is known for. They fit together well.

What’s it like working with your sister?

We live in the same house and work at the same shop. At any time, we’re double-checking each other’s work or offering alternative solutions to design problems. We get along well.

How is your practice guided by your cultures? How does your work relate to your community?

Culture and art are integral. I have a lot of work that speaks to issues I find important in our community. The “Town Meeting” sunglasses represent the idea that our people need to be involved in community government. The lightsaber t-shirts represent the idea that, as Native people, we are active and inspired by stories we hear today. The playing cards and basketballs, like the skate decks, provide identity products for our people to use and represent their heritage in their daily lives. Our work is 100 percent influenced by the things happening to us and around us as living Native people.

I’ve read that you choose to not use certain imagery in your work. Could you tell us why?

The clan is the basic social unit in Tlingit society. Individuals are just parts of clans. Clans are the property holders. Among the things they own are crests, specific designs based on the clan history that represent that clan. Trickster Company will do designs of Northwest Coast animals—many designs are general animal designs—but we will not do specific clan crests. Tlingit society has an intricate property law, but it’s a very clear property law as well. We simply do not break the law when making our designs.

What needs does your company address?

We provide identity products that Native people can use to represent themselves as Indigenous and carry with pride and which are made by their own people. It’s a gateway for youth to learn more about their culture. It can be intimidating to be told that you need to learn 10,000 years of history, language, and stories, but maybe it’s not so bad if you’re just interested in playing cards with Native designs for now. It’s so Native people can help develop a Native economy. Rural communities are struggling. I hire other artists who represent innovative Native design. I hope that Trickster Company acts as one more small opportunity for Native artists to add to their collection of opportunities.

For our non-Native visitors, friends, family, and neighbors, it’s a means of education. It allows people to appreciate the culture without appropriating.

What do you hope to explore in the future?

I recently received a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation to expand my design studies from 2D into 3D. Studying sculpting and 3D printing is the next major undertaking for me.

Exploring Native Graphic Design: Chad Earles: Caddo Visual Communicator


My article, Exploring Native Design: Chad Earles: Caddo Visual Communicator, highlighting Caddo designer Chad Earles in issue 7, Summer 2015, of First American Art Magazine.

Chad Earles: Caddo Visual Communicator
by Neebinnaukzhik Southall
As appears in First American Art Magazine

GRAPHIC DESIGN, DRAWING, painting, screen printing, spray-painting, and ancient Caddo motifs are all part of the creative efforts of Chad Earles, an accomplished designer and member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. “I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, not far from the tribal headquarters in Binger, Oklahoma,” says Chad, who traces his ancestry to the Caddo homelands of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Family was instrumental to Chad’s creative direction, beginning with the intergenerational influence of his great- aunt Doris Miller Tonemah (1919– 2004). “She was a big supporter of our tribe’s dances and songs and even helped amend the Caddo Nation constitution,” notes Chad. She married Scott Tonemah (Kiowa, 1913–1990), a traditionalist, a member of the Black Leggings Society, and a grandson of Chief Stumbling Bear. The couple’s house was filled with Native art, especially Kiowa and Caddo cultural items.

Chad’s father Wayne Earles stayed with Doris and Scott while attending Oklahoma University and became the first from the Caddo side of his family to graduate college. Of Doris’s preservation of Caddo culture, Chad says, “I feel very fortunate that my great-aunt was
so involved in Caddo traditions, which ultimately inspired me to reconnect with my tribe.”

Camera in hand, Doris traveled with her husband to the Southwest. She would share her photographs with Wayne, introducing him to Southwest Native art and culture. “It trickled down to me and my brother,” Chad observes. His father also became a photographer. He and his wife Fran would take the family to the Southwest where they visited Ancestral Pueblo ruins. These trips made a lasting impression on Chad, and his parents were always supportive of his own artistic pursuits, which started in elementary school.

“I first became aware of the field of graphic design in 6th grade,” Chad says. “We had an assignment that involved going through this huge binder and choosing careers we might be interested in. All I really wanted to be was an artist, but of course, that wasn’t in the binder. There were very few art-related fields listed.” So, he chose graphic design. In high school, Chad took drawing and painting classes. After an art teacher looked through one of his sketchbooks of graffiti tags, she encouraged him to enter in the design category of a high school art competition at a nearby college. He did, winning Best of Show with his nine small Sharpie renderings of road signs on a sheet of paper.

Chad’s brother Chase Kahwinhut Earles, eight years his senior, also influenced Chad through his own studies in animation and digital art at Savannah College of Art and Design. Seeing Chad’s piqued interest, Chase encouraged him to pursue the arts, too.

Chad enrolled in the Atlanta College of Art (ACA) in Georgia to study fine art and graphic design. The intense demands of his design program pared the group of 15 students down to four or five, resulting in significant, one-on-one time with instructors. Chad’s education included a solid foundation of the principles and history of art and design. As there was little Native presence in the area, his ancestry intrigued teachers and staff. One art history professor exclaimed, “Oh, Caddos—the mound builders!” Chad responded, “Well, I haven’t built any mounds lately.”

Chad’s role models are numerous. “I have been inspired by the work of modern and contemporary designers like Armin Hofmann, Wolfgang Weingart, Paul Rand, Chermayeff
and Geismar, Shigeo Fukuda, April Greiman, Milton Glaser, and Massimo Vignelli,” says Chad, who also credits the New York School of Design and Swiss typography as influences. The ACA program included visits from “rock star” designers such as Massimo Vignelli, Phillip Burton, and Chip Kidd, and field trips to top design firms around the country, such as Pentagram, Chermayeff & Geismar, and Landor Associates. Chad had the opportunity to meet Milton Glaser, creator of the I♥NY logo, at his studio. During his junior and senior years, Chad created designs for his college and fliers for local musicians and DJs. He interned with Peter Wong, the communications department head, who along with other professors (Barry Roseman, Mark Rokfalusi, Rick Lovell, Larry Jens Anderson, and Norman Wagner) were strong influences.

Chad also delved into the world of street art in Atlanta. “Graffiti was everywhere,” says Chad. “Prolific graffiti artists were doing amazing pieces, like full-scale murals.” A few legal walls were left from demolished buildings and undeveloped spaces. One was transformed into the 40 Yard Skatepark. “You could go there and hang out with friends, eat pizza, drink sodas, and be out there all day and night, just spray-painting and learning from the different artists there.” Even one of the school’s instructors spray- painted on his lunch break.

Chad was the sole graduate from his program in 2006, the same year ACA merged with Savannah College of Art and Design.

After graduation, Chad freelanced for Critt Graham, a respected design firm in Atlanta. He was eventually hired, quickly advancing from junior designer to senior designer. His clients included startups, nonprofits, and Fortune 100 and 500 companies such as Ann Inc., Aéropostale, Kodak, Philips, and Wendy’s. Projects included logos, websites, sustainability and annual reports, promotional packaging, publications, posters, t-shirts, signage, interactive graphics, motion graphics, photo-shoot direction, and more.

Chad’s interest in web design and motion graphics helped secure his spot at Critt Graham. During the firm’s off-season, he took online courses through lynda.com about Flash animation and ActionScript programming. With this knowledge, he earned his firm approximately $250,000 for an online annual report for a global trading company.

Some of Chad’s work at Critt Graham also received peer recognition. His branding for Ann Inc., package design for Wendy’s, holiday card for Critt Graham, and annual reports for Ann Taylor, CommScope, and Knight Capital Group all won Graphic Design USA awards. His annual report for Knight Capital Group also won an iNOVA Gold award.

The firm closed after founder Critt Graham passed away. Chad stayed in Atlanta, contracting with design firms for clients such as Coca-Cola and Georgia-Pacific, and began creating art on the side. In September 2014, Chad moved back to Oklahoma to be with his family, to be a part of his young niece’s life, and to be more involved with his tribe. He continues to work as a freelance designer and visual artist. His current focus is Nishology®, a culmination of his creative and cultural experiences.

“Nishology is an art and apparel brand with a mission to perpetuate Caddo art and culture by creating contemporary artwork and apparel that incorporates elements of ancient Caddo pottery and shell engravings,” explains Chad. The beauty, harmony, and balance of these designs, which include serpents, cross- hatching, and scrolls, appeal to him as a designer. Nish, which means moon in Caddo, is the name his great-aunt Doris gave to Chad. It’s also his graffiti tag. Tsa Nish, Mr. Moon, is a key figure in the Caddo creation story.

“After college I didn’t make any artwork at all and just did graphic design for
six or more years,” says Chad. “I really wanted to express myself artistically and be more creative in everything that I did. I just started doing art again one day, and along the same time period, my brother Chase was beginning to create Caddo pottery the old way.” Chad learned more about Caddo visuals through his brother, who was conducting extensive research to help revive the Caddo pottery tradition. The last Caddo pottery made before Jeri Redcorn (Caddo-Potawatomi) initiated its revival in the 1990s was by the Whitebead family and Madeline Hamilton’s grandmother around 1930.

Chad has plunged feet first into the Native art world. For his first art show, he shared a booth with his brother at the 2014 Santa Fe Indian Market. He has also exhibited at the Cherokee Art Market and the Chickasaw Nation’s Southeastern Art Show and Market, and has many more markets earmarked for the future, including a return to Santa Fe Indian Market.


Exploring Native Graphic Design: Publications Professional: Deborah Villa

Deborah Villa in her home with some of the magazines she has designed for the Santa Fe New Mexican’s Indian Market magazine.


My article, Exploring Native Design: Publications Professional: Deborah Villa highlights the work of Mestiza designer Deborah Villa, appearing in the Winter 2014, issue 5 of First American Art Magazine.

Publications Professional: Deborah Villa
by Neebinnaukzhik Southall
As appears in First American Art Magazine

DEBORAH VILLA (Mestiza) is the creative powerhouse behind The Santa Fe
New Mexican’s specialty magazines. As the creative director and senior editor, she produces publications for Santa Fe’s major art markets: the Santa Fe Indian Market, the International Folk Art Market/Santa Fe, and Spanish Market. Additionally, she puts together a variety of other magazines throughout the year, such as Bienvenidos, Winterlife, and Health & Wellness.

Remarkably, she is the only person on staff creating these magazines. “I design the magazine from scratch,” states Deborah. Tasks include selecting fonts, designing style sheets, determining advertising placement, and picking covers to be approved by the publisher. “You have to be detail- oriented to do design,” says Deborah. The ability to organize and manage time is also important. The grid is vital to establishing structure in her design process. “I started designing using a 12-column grid,” Deborah explains, further noting that more columns allow for greater design flexibility. Deborah emphasizes that the paper, the press, the publication, and the story must be taken into account when designing. “When you’re working with newsprint versus glossy, it’s all about readability.”

In addition to design, her work involves art direction, hiring photographers and illustrators, designers, editors, and writers. After many years of covering diverse subject matter in the various magazines, she has a good sense of who’s who and what’s going on in Santa Fe. In the last few years, she has hired editors and directed editorial content. For the market magazines, she attends the shows and takes reference photos for future articles and potential artists to cover. “I work a year in advance on all the magazines,” says Deborah. “I [send] photographers out to all the markets to get photos for next year.”

Deborah’s level of expertise and big-picture insight comes as the result of a rich history of creative work and a storied life. Her grandmother on her father’s side was a fullblooded Indigenous woman from Torreón, Mexico.

Deborah, a self-described “child of the sixties,” grew up in the Logan Heights barrio in San Diego, California, where her family has lived for many generations. As the Vietnam War raged on, Deborah watched as her brothers and members of her community were drawn into the conflict. “All the people in my neighborhood were sent to war,” reveals Deborah. The disparities within these circumstances affected her outlook and influenced her decision to work as a graphic designer.

After hitchhiking around the country and living in a commune, Deborah put herself through school, first attending Adams State College, where she studied ceramics and printmaking. She received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1978 to work as an artist in residence teaching in the schools and community of San Luis, Colorado. There, she taught ceramics and drawing. In her work she explored drawing on porcelain with a glaze pencil and silk-screen printing on tile. Over time, she became disillusioned with the dynamics within the fine art world and “rebelled against fine art.”

“I did not want to do one painting so that only one person could buy it,” explains Deborah, bothered by the idea of catering to the elite to be successful. Preferring to create art that could be for everyone, she turned to printmaking, which led her to graphic design.

Desiring to fulfill a childhood dream of attending art school, Deborah moved to San Francisco to attend the Academy of Art University, where she graduated with a BFA in graphic design in the early 1980s. “I think the most valid thing I learned at school was typography,” says Deborah, noting that certain design techniques later became obsolete with the shift to computers. Every semester, she studied the history and nuances of type. “To me, it matters what fonts you use on different publications,” says Deborah. “You can tell an educated designer by their font choices.”

Inside and outside of school, San Francisco was an exciting place to be. “I was meeting people from all over the world,” says Deborah. Punk rock was in full swing, and the music and poster art of such bands as the Talking Heads had a major impression on her. She met and befriended Stanley Mouse, who notably designed posters and album covers for bands such as the Grateful Dead in the ‘60s. “When I was a teen I had his posters on my wall,” she reveals. With the drummer for Jefferson Airplane for a roommate, Deborah met a lot of musicians, including many she had admired in her younger years.

Music and design continued to intersect for Deborah as art director for Tower Records, where she designed advertising. “My office looked onto the San Francisco Bay.” Other work perks included “free tickets for everything” and backstage passes to shows. After Tower Records, she freelanced out of her apartment studio on Beach and Hyde Streets, producing work for nonprofit clients including Food First, Public Media Center, Mother Jones, and Greenpeace. Moving on, Deborah worked for Electronic Musician and Mix magazines for a few years in Berkeley.

“After the magazines, I got hired at the San Francisco Chronicle. I started doing newspaper features,” Deborah remembers. “We were working on the Macintosh and testing software for Adobe.” Designing on computers was then still new. On October 18, 1989, the Bay Area was hit with a major earthquake, and the electricity went out. “The back shop that put out the type couldn’t put it out,” tells Deborah. “We stayed up all night with a generator hooked up to the Macs and put the type out.” Using floppy disks from the writers, the art department printed out the columns of type, pasted them up, and successfully put together the paper. As a result of being part of the team that accomplished this feat, she was contracted as an art director by Apple in 1990, which had the earthquake edition of the paper hanging in their offices. Deborah also worked at the Oakland Tribune until it folded.

She left San Francisco in 1993 and spent a winter in Red Lodge, Montana, where she shared an office on Main Street with a former colleague from Apple Computer. Working from a distance, they explored telecommuting with clients in California.

“I came to Santa Fe in 1996,” Deborah says. “I walked in to The Santa Fe New Mexican with my portfolio.” Although Deborah intended to do freelance work, the paper’s features designer had quit the day before, and she was hired to fill the position. There she worked on the copy desk, designed features for the paper, and worked on magazines.

Around 2004, Deborah took a break from The New Mexican and headed back to California. At Desert Magazine, published by the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, she was hired to redesign the magazine. She art directed and managed photo shoots. Her first art direction project was on the red carpet with the Kirk Douglas family. She worked with photographers who shot food, architecture, fashion, and lifestyle photography. She was awarded an ADDY for publication design in 2005 for Desert Magazine.

However, a hostile work environment ultimately caused her to leave the magazine. “I left Palm Springs because of racial discrimination,” explains Deborah, recounting several incidents, including one in which the publisher himself stated that he didn’t want “Hispanics” in his magazine. She then moved on to Diablo Magazine, produced in Walnut Creek in the Bay Area.

Upon returning to Santa Fe in 2006, she has since focused on producing beautifully designed magazines for The New Mexican. On September 27th she headed to the New Mexico Press Association’s award banquet to receive a hard-earned award for her work on the 2014 Bienvenidos.