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October Issue: A Conversation between Art and Heritage

One Native American artist tells his story and speaks his truth.

By: Chase Congleton

For thousands of years, Native Americans created art of all different mediums ranging from sculptures, living spaces, pottery and paintings. Hundreds of tribes scattered across the Americas in diverse geographical landscapes had varying ways of interpreting the world around them. Even though there is a variety of differences between the tribes, Native American artists often face stereotypes regarding what sort of art is acceptable to make.

Joel Carpenter is a registered artist who is a senior at Oklahoma State University majoring in engineering. Carpenter originates from Frederick, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Choctaw Nation.

Believing he was born to be an artist, Carpenter hails from a long family dynasty of Native artists. Inspired by the works of his grandfather, uncle and mother, he grew an interest in art and started cultivating a vision of his own.

“It really comes down to how I see things,” Carpenter said. “I’m always looking at a perspective of colors, shapes and textures.”

Joel Carpenter learned different styles and techniques from looking at how his relatives created their art for fun. He eventually earned a degree in graphic design in 2000.

“I worked in graphic design for a while,” Carpenter said, “but I’ve always done paintings, sketches, cartoons and caricatures.”

Despite being of Choctaw descent, Carpenter insists that his favorite art medium is cartooning and making caricatures because the jokes are short, quick and get to the point more quickly than putting the oil paint on canvas.

In his natural element, he enjoys drawing in times of boredom and has put his skills to good use. He has worked as an artist at state fairs and LexiCon’s Comic-Con, a free fandom event in Stillwater for all types of pop culture genres.

Even though Native American artists have the same passion for the same set of colors and art styles as people who are non-Native, Native Americans often become type-cast based on the reality of their heritage. Native American artists throughout the twentieth century to the present-day have fought to break the stereotypes and bend the mold of what is an acceptable product of art from someone who is native.

“I think there is a perception of Native American art,” Carpenter said, “and then there’s a reality of Native American art.”

He states that often times people will assume Native American art has to be conformed to a particular style to truly be accepted and called Native American art.

“I have seen some Native American artists who worked in all different genres and media,” Carpenter said, “they are fantastic.”

As a culture, most Native American tribes give the utmost respect for all artists within their tribes. Joel Carpenter says that the Choctaw Nation especially respects artists, whether it is with contemporary work or traditional work.

Due to the diaspora with Indigenous people in the Americas, many Native tribes entered into a melting pot in Oklahoma due to a large number of tribes blending together in the past couple of centuries. As a result, many unique traits within tribes have become lost and the only true way to see the diversity of art is to go back further in time.

For example, the Choctaw tribe, as Joel Carpenter states, is very different from other tribes such as the Cherokee and Iroquois as well as tribes that lived in regions far away on the west coast.

“The Choctaw’s closest relatives are the Chickasaws,” Carpenter said. “We actually have stories about how the two tribes were brothers born of the same place and that then split and became two different tribes.”

Today, Joel Carpenter enjoys making cartoons and “nature art,” as he calls it. His love for capturing Oklahoma scenery stems from witnessing and being inspired by his uncle’s work.

“I saw the work that he did and I loved it,” Carpenter said. “In fact, after he passed away, my prized possessions were that he gave me his art because I was the only one out the children in the family who became an artist.”

Joel Carpenter hopes to carry on the legacy of his uncle, while continuing to pay tribute to his Choctaw heritage as well as properly portray, in his own style, the landscapes and animals he sees in Oklahoma. As for Native Americans, there is work still to be done to breakdown barriers and stigmas from society.

“For the longest time, Native Americans got lumped into one group, and we’re not,” Carpenter said. “We’re a great diverse group of people.”

Photos by: Ellie McKinney


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