Oklahoma, home to nearly 40 American Indian tribes, is full of renowned artwork from Native artists. But for years, Oklahoma City’s popular entertainment district Bricktown lacked any Native-creative artwork.
Four Native American artists from a variety of tribes created two large-scale murals at the entrance to the entertainment district as part of a partnership between Downtown Oklahoma City, Inc., and the Chickasaw Nation.
Chad “Nish” Earles, who is Caddo, and Rhiana Deck, who is Choctaw, completed a mural called “Earth to Sky” on the south side of the Sheridan Avenue underpass. On the north side, J. NiCole Hatfield, who is Comanche and Kiowa, and Steven Grounds, who is Navajo, Euchee, Creek and Seminole, completed “Strength of the Woman.”
Completed this past summer, the walls, which measure nearly 120-feet long and 13-feet tall, give visitors to Bricktown a new sense of Native American artistry.
“It was long overdue. We have 40 different tribes here in Oklahoma and not very many Native murals in the OKC area,” said Hatfield, 33 who lives in Norman. She added that statues depicting the Oklahoma Land Run reside nearby. “I feel like it’s our right to represent ourselves and to let people know that we are still here. We have a voice! I also wanted to inspire and set a positive example for our Native youth out there.”
Hatfield worked with Grounds on the mural, which was inspired by the idea that the foundation of every tribe is the woman and the survival of future generations. The piece centers around Native American activist John Trudell and his poem “See the Woman.”
The poem is overlaid on portraits of various Native Americans.
“We are both portrait artist, so we wanted to do the wall full of portraits,” Hatfield said of the mural, which took about one month to complete. Her half of the wall was inspired by historical photos of people from different tribes, while Grounds’ portion is comprised of living people. The two collaborated in the center, on a portrait of a Chickasaw elder woman who is holding a growing plant. The plant, Hatfield said, represents nurturing Native culture for the future generation.
Grounds, who is also working on a mural project at the former Concho Indian Boarding School in Concho, Oklahoma, said it’s important to have Native-based artwork in Oklahoma City because there are so many tribes represented in the state but few public or street art projects by Native people.
“Oklahoma City is very young in their mural scene so working with the Chickasaw Nation on this mural project is an important step in nurturing a growing art scene,” said Grounds, who is 38 and based in El Reno, Oklahoma.
For “Earth to Sky” Earles and Deck depicted red clay coils, which provide a landscape for giant figures composed of sky blue feathers. The mural took about 20 days to complete.
“We wanted to create something that our tribes and the Native American community at large could be proud of,” Earles, who is 33 and is based in Oklahoma City, said. “At the same time, we wanted to create something uplifting and thought-provoking, something everyone could enjoy and appreciate.”
Earles said his artwork is inspired by the Caddo peoples’ culture, tradition and history, in particular the shell engravings, stone and copper work, pottery and basketry.
“Not many people know about my tribe,” he said, “so it is my goal to share and educate people who we were and who we are now.”
Deck, a member of the Choctaw Nation, said growing up in Oklahoma has given her lots of inspiration.
“It’s everywhere if you know where to look,” said the 31-year-old artist based in Oklahoma City. “I grew up being outside a lot and playing in the fields around our house. Respect was a big deal growing up. It was understood to respect every creature, big or small. That everyone and everything has a value and purpose, and this really carries into my work as an adult.”
Staci Sanger, spokeswoman for Downtown OKC, Inc., said the organization hopes to work with the Chickasaw Nation and Native American artists in the future on other projects.
“All public art helps to create a distinctive place and part of our unique history. In Oklahoma, Native history plays a very important part.”