ANADARKO, Okla. – Today’s society tends to use “tragedy” almost too loosely, whether it’s appropriate or not. But when real-life stories merit the term and mirror some of the storylines that Shakespeare might have used, many never find out what happens once the tragedy ends and how people can make the most out of life’s bitterest obstacles.
The Tiger family of the Creek and Seminole tribes is a family that has not just survived, but thrives despite life’s sharp edges and swift punches.
The story is one that many throughout Indian country know, starting with Jerome Tiger, a young and mostly self-taught artist who grew up in the areas of Muskogee and Eufala. In the short time before his death in 1967 from an accidental gunshot wound, the 26-year-old left behind thousands of paintings and sculptures.
“Aesthetically, Jerome innovated Native art in very abstract ways,” said Russell Tall Chief, Osage, executive director of the Jacobson House Native Art Center in Norman. “He still had a lot of representational, figurative work. It started to take on a lot more movement, and there was a blurring that began to occur between the figurative and the abstract. Forms started to change in his work. His works represents a transition, a pivotal period in the history of Native art when Native art began to become more expressive.
“What’s vital in Jerome’s work is the cultural memory that he portrays through the scenes of Seminole life and historical leaders like Osceola. That cultural memory is a historical record, but when it’s through a gifted artist, you start to get his own perspective on culture. You see the inner culture of his people – you see his inner culture and how he sees people’s reflections of their inner culture – their spirituality and expressions of love between a mother and a baby.”
After Jerome Tiger’s death, it was up to his young widow, Peggy, and his brother, Johnny Tiger Jr., to make sure that the Tiger artistic legacy continued. Peggy’s role in this was to create Tiger Art, a gallery based in Muskogee that sold both Jerome’s originals and prints of his work to a worldwide audience. More importantly, however, it was Peggy and Johnny Jr. that oversaw the artistic development of Jerome’s three children – Dana, Lisa and Christopher.
“He died when I was 5 years old,” said Dana. “We grew up knowing him through the artwork that we were surrounded with … I grew up surrounded by that artwork, which taught me a lot about who I was as a Muscogee Creek/Seminole person.”
But it took a while for Dana Tiger to devote her entire life’s work to doing art, she said.
“After my dad died, my Uncle Johnny, his older brother, encouraged us to do art, and had us doing art and entering art shows as children,” she said. “During my school years, junior high and high school, I ended up eventually quitting art. My life took a different direction, and it wasn’t really a positive direction. When I turned 24, that’s when I made the decision to go back to artwork and do it every day. I continue to do that.”
While Dana’s Tiger’s direction in the art world became known, her family would yet again be affected by hardship when her brother, Christopher, died violently in 1990 at age 22. Then, her sister, Lisa, discovered that she was HIV positive in 1992. By 1999, Lisa’s HIV status would fully develop into AIDS. In 1999, Dana and Lisa learned that they both had Parkinson’s disease.
These events might have been enough to stop some individuals or some families from continuing their life’s journey. However, the Tiger family continued on, with Dana’s work embodying the themes of HIV awareness and female empowerment. Dana is also active in preserving Native culture, with her nonprofit Legacy Cultural Learning Center set up near her home in the Tahlequah area as a way to teach Creek and Cherokee languages and traditions. Lisa Tiger is married to sculptor Diego Romero, with whom she has a daughter. Lisa Tiger is also known nationwide as a lecturer on AIDS awareness.
“A person can lay down and die and not do anything,” said Dana Tiger. “I’ve never thought that way. I’ve just always tried to put one foot in front of the other. There’s that desire to live and to do well that’s deep inside, although horrible things can happen in a person’s life.”
As a way to tell this story of triumph, the Tiger family and Tall Chief have assembled the works of Jerome, Johnny, Dana, Lisa and Christopher Tiger, as well as Dana’s children, Christie Blair Tiger and Lisan Tiger Blair, into the exhibit “Tiger Art: Triumph over Tragedy,” ongoing through Dec. 23 at the Jacobson House’s location near the University of Oklahoma campus.
“This is our story from the paintbrush perspective,” said Dana Tiger. “It’s really meaningful, and there’s so much to it. We have been through so much, yet we still choose and try to express ourselves truthfully. That truth can be meaningful in other people’s lives, even though they haven’t been through some of the things we have. They will be able to relate.”