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Dynamic Artist Gregg Deal Makes Whoopi Goldberg's List of 'Favorite Things'

Artist Gregg Deal, recently featured on The View, discusses his art and growing business, Modern Bird Studios.
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On May 28, Whoopi Goldberg shared some of "Whoopi's Favorite Things" in a segment on The View; one of her selections was the work of the artist Gregg Deal, Pyramid Lake Paiute. Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with Deal and got the story on his very innovative business.

Can you describe what it is you do that Whoopi Goldberg brought up on The View?

I have a commission based website with a business name called Modern Bird Studios. The site having a business name gives a greater sense of approachability, but in the end, folks are commissioning me to do a painting in the style I’ve developed. In general terms, people submit an image to me, I create a piece for them.

How did you come up with the idea for this venture—the business summed up on the site as "Your Life in Art"?

The idea of marketing Modern Bird as a business was done purely out of necessity. While the process is a culmination of every bit of artistic experience I’ve had in my life, Modern Bird was created in order for us to have something to put hope into in order to put food on the table. In fall of 2009 I was laid off from my job. By the time Christmas rolled around, it was clear that I was going to be hard pressed to find something. I had -- I have -- a growing family, and at the time my wife was home full time with my infant son and 3 year old daughter. We didn’t have the extra cash to buy presents for our moms, so my wife suggested I make something for them based on a style I created. That style is a very simple watered down version of what I do today. After creating the work, we both took a step back and asked if this was something that we could sell. In the deep discussions that happen between couples in times of hardship, I made the bold statement -- a dreamer’s statement -- which was "why would I have this ability to create and not be able to use it to provide for my family?"

Modern Bird was created in January 2010. My wife does all the marketing, I do all the artwork. She is my confidant, and partner in everything, and I don’t think we would have survived without her experience and ability in marketing and business development.

I am trained in classic oil painting and drawing. It was always my dream to work full time as a fine artist. Modern Bird, based on the model we created, feeds my ability to do that while providing for my family.

Can you take us through the process, from the time the customer contacts you to the finished product? Do you work with the customer to find the best image?

A purchase is made online at Modern Bird Studios, and most people have a set idea of the size they want, based sometimes on their budget. There are times when I hear from folks about needing help in figuring out what works best, so I work with everyone in that respect. After the purchase, I get a photo from the purchaser. This is almost always in the form of a digital image, a photograph either taken digitally or scanned, and emailed to me. If the image doesn’t work, or needs some extra colors or work, I will let the purchaser know. After a bit of time -- and depending on the work load currently in our queue -- the purchaser will get a digital proof. I usually send a minimum of 3 or 4 color proofs that reflect their wants, as well as some suggestions, colorwise. Upon approval it goes into the production queue where the digital image will be broken down and painted on a 3/4” cabinet grade Oak composite, the finished product being what you see on the site.

The entire process is one based in digital, hand rendered, and hand applied art work. It is simple, contemporary and approachable for common people who don’t have to worry about the intimidation of taking the time to talk to an artist to commission them to do something. You know what you’re going to get.

You offer various types of image, from two-color to five-color, and then acrylic mounted to wood. Can you explain what these are?

Each piece is broken down into numbers of colors. A three color image has three colors. An image can be broken down into lights and darks. Abstract shapes are made that when put together, make up the form and figure of what we see. Each color is a layer that I create and apply and paint onto the wood or acrylic surface. The "light and dark" is an important aspect to this. As a painter, I am informed less by lines, and more by light and the shapes they create. Three different layers of darkness (white, gray, black for example) can create the image.

Are you painting by hand, or are you printing onto the surfaces?

Everything is painted by hand on to their respective surfaces, although not with a brush if that's what you mean. I create stencils for each layer and use an acrylic based spray paint to apply the paint.

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Can you tell us about the piece you did for Whoopi?

I produced one of my acrylic pieces for Whoopi. It’s a piece of glass-like acrylic mounted to wood. The photo was one that her producers sent me about 4 days before the show was going to tape. Apparently she has a thing for Minnie Mouse -- who doesn't? -- and loves that image. In the show I think they cut her reaction short, but the producers told me that she was really, really pleased with it.

Now, about the work we see when we follow the link to The Art of Gregg Deal -- you've got graffiti-style work, collage, acrylic mounted to wood, and even some absurd or dadaist sculpture. What's been your evolution as an artist -- what styles did you start out doing and what direction have you moved in?

It is all of those things for sure! Evolution in art is such a odd thing. I began a long time ago in comic books style of illustration and drawing, moving to graffiti and street art. I went to school for painting, where I learned traditional oil painting and drawing. Couple that with my practical need to learn graphic design and I figured out a process that literally marries all of these together. The hardest part in this is finding what speaks to me as an artist and what my strengths are. I have always been enamored with the human figure, particularly the face. Of course there are multiple facets to my voice as an artist, and me being Native is one of them.

I draw so much on what is around me, like emotion, humor and design, in general terms. You can see my inspirations pretty clearly, but I find it pretty important for me to have work that follows my integrity as an artist. Humor is a huge part of that, as is humanity, and my Nativeness. The challenge in all that is in producing work that remains provocative, relevant and honest.

We see Indian themes in your work—what sort of responsibility do you feel as a Native artist?

Honestly, I don’t feel any responsibility. My responsibility is to my family and my work, and everything else comes after. There was a time I felt an enormous amount of responsibility to my work as an artist, but I came to realize a long time ago that Indian country is like any other group or people where it doesn’t really matter. I think in the end people respect consistency, truth and statements made from the conscience of someone who dictates themselves as honestly and truly as possible. None of that is to say that I don’t love Indian country, or my heritage as a Native person, but there isn’t a moral dilemma in how I use Native themes in my work. You will find that the work that is decidedly Native makes social statements, and uses humor to make the point.

People listen more when you’re not pointing a finger in their face saying “YOU!”. I have strong opinions socially and politically about being Native, but am old enough to know how people respond to such things. It has a time and a place, and in a world where I am a growing artist, I have to make calculated decisions about my use of Native themes.

Is your work political—if so, how?

I suppose you could say that my work is political. Social issues and political issues within Indian Country tend to hold hands, don’t they? I have a piece called Vehicular Dream Catch which is a rear view mirror from a car mounted to a piece of glass. Hanging from the rear view mirror is a dream catcher. How many times I’ve had friends from rural areas of Indian Country say to me “who are all these people sleeping in their cars?”. The real message is about misappropriation of Native items, textiles, icons, and symbols. It’s a real issue in America, one based more on a lack of respect beyond the fantasy of Native America, but you can’t say that. You just put it out there and make it obvious. What is funny is that it will slap them in the face when they realize what they’re looking at.

I do have another piece called Destiny Manifest. A 6'-by-4' canvas of multimedia that makes a very large and political statement based more on a narrative than an in your face political stance. I used old Manifest Destiny posters that literally say “Indian Land For Sale” as a wallpaper to the piece where I painted an old Indian over the top of it. The message is obvious, but not. It takes people a bit to get it. I like that because it provides a narrative to it. You don’t have to be invested in the person on the piece, but have a basic understanding of history and what that history means to you. I can make my statements all day, but in the end, it speaks to everyone differently.

You incorporate/reuse existing images—for instance, Kevin Costner, the cartoon superhero Apache Chief, and several in your piece Dreamers & Losers. What are the advantages or disadvantages to using an image that everyone recognizes?

Each of the pieces you mentioned have specific purposes to them. I look at Apache Chief and think of how as a kid I had trouble finding anything to relate to what represented me, and what I look like. To have an Indian as a super hero was huge. It makes me cringe now, with the stereotypical “Indian talk” and the loin cloth. I think any Native now would at least bead that loin cloth or something. But from a culture point of view, it meant something to me then. Now that I have my own kids, it means even more as I am a consious Native parent. The reliability factor in my work is meant to raise the questions to the viewers though. As I’ve gotten old it becomes “Oh, I remember that! But -- what does it all mean now”. Put in to the context of a Native artist in a show, that question comes up even moreso. [Apache Chief is available for purchase as a poster at Gregg Deal's online shop, -Ed.]

Using Kevin Costner was meant to be what it is. In my generation I cannot think of a figure that has forced himself into Native culture more than Mr. Costner. I spent a year at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indians during its inaugural opening, and I can’t tell you how incredibly common it is to hear how much Dances With Wolves spoke to the non-Native allowing true connection and relation to our culture through history. So, knowing that, it seemed appropriate for me to create an honor drum for John Dunbar. It’s meant to confuse. To Natives, we laugh at it. To non-Natives, they are either scratching their heads or simply acknowledging it’s nice. What an excellent illustration to the differences and perceptions of different cultures! As a side note, I am working on about a half dozen other honor drums from individuals who've played a similar role to Indian country through pop culture.

In the end, historical, pop culture, myth, misconceptions and truths within Indian Country are all relevant to the Native American experience. I like to use it to make fun, make a point, create thought or meaning to my work.