I am not in any way, shape or form a traditional artist. I can’t tell the difference (thank God) between an art deco piece to a Renaissance piece. Nor do I want to have that ability. I didn’t go to school to be an artist. Yes, I did eventually receive my degree in graphic design, but I was slinging art way before that ever happened. I can’t tell you past works by the greats, where they lived, when they lived, where those pieces are located today and again, not something I care to learn or know.
When I began my art career it was 100% by mistake. A little backstory is necessary.
I didn’t grow up in an art loving house. I was a Cherokee hillbilly, art was never discussed around the dinner table, there were never art coffee table books laying around and going to a museum would have been over an hour drive and that in and of itself was a waste of gas. Through middle school and into high school I still had no desire to create art. It was not even on the radar.
My best friends all throughout school were identifiably Cherokee and their family members were fluent Cherokee speakers. But to a kid that just wants to run and play the language means nothing. I had no speakers in my home and so I knew the Cherokee language existed, I never had an interest in learning it. In school we all knew we were Cherokee because we received free lunches, Johnson O’Malley school supplies and we were allowed to join Indian Club. Native American studies was nowhere on the curriculum from 1980-1992 when I was in school, so I had no idea what being Cherokee even was. And honestly, it’s sad to say, but I didn’t care.
I began working at Cherokee Nation in 2001. Up to that point in my life I was exposed to Cherokee people daily, but I had zero experience in dealing with the language. I was hired as an administrative assistant because I had my COMPTia computer certification. I started my career working with the Cultural Resource Center. This was a 20 or so person department and probably 14 of the 20 people working there were master fluent first language Cherokee speakers that knew how to read and write but, they had almost no computer experience. So, the goal was I needed to learn to read and write Cherokee, quick, and start producing Cherokee materials. So, I did.
After several years working there, I was offered a position with the Cherokee Immersion School developing language materials and curriculum for the 3–4-year-old through 8th grade classes. There are zero materials available for purchase in the Cherokee language. So, whatever you needed you had to create. So little did I realize it at the time, I was starting my career as an artist. If it was available in English, I went above and beyond to create the exact same thing in Cherokee. The United States map, Solar System, the water cycle. If I saw it, I created it. The school was loaded down with as much material as I could kick out for the next 8 or so years.
Again, not realizing I was an artist I began working with Language Technology. The purpose of the department was to have the Cherokee language represented on computers, phones and tablets. We did it all. Windows 8, Windows 10, Microsoft Office, iPhone, iPod, iPad, Google Homepage and Gmail, and Facebook. All have Cherokee support.
So, with the backstory out of the way while working at Language Technology my co-worker, Roy Boney, is an absolutely outstanding artist. He did start drawing at a very young age. The guy can do it all. Paint, draw, graphics. If it’s an artform he can do it. And he began to ask me why I never created artwork. My reply was simple. I am not an artist, and I didn’t want to be an artist. He stayed after me for a few years and my answer was always the same. Art was lame. Artwork was stupid, I had no interest. Finally, after 3 years I decided I would create a piece of artwork, mainly to get him off my back. Upon its creation he seemed to be pretty blown away by it. But I was embarrassed to let the world see it. I didn’t know how to do the entry forms, so he helped. I tried every excuse I could come up with to not enter the piece, but he talked me into entering the local art show and that night I took home first place, and Best in Show for my piece Cherokee on the Brain. It was the first time I believe in 35 years a graphic piece had won Best in Show at that venue and the rest is pretty much history. I have won many awards for my artwork, but those are not important and it’s not my goal to have a room full of ribbons. Honestly, out of all the wins I maybe have 2 or 3 ribbons in a box somewhere.
To this day I still have a hard time with the title of artist. Then I realized to be an artist you don’t have to have 10 different degrees from 10 different colleges in 10 different subjects. You technically don’t need a high school diploma. You didn’t need to know anything about the past aka art history, you didn’t need to know former artist, or even current artist. There were no rules when it came to artwork, it was a lawless hobby, and I am all about no rules. You simply needed one thing. You needed a message to convey and a medium to do it with. When I realized that I could reach the masses without ever speaking a word it clicked with me. I was an artist, and I had a thing or two to say.
If the Cherokee language were an animal, it would be on the endangered species list. In 2017 the Cherokee Language Department began taking record of fluent Cherokee speakers and it was a little over 2000. Now that number is below 1700. And each year it gets a little lower and a little lower.
So, I create exclusively Cherokee Syllabary and Cherokee themed artwork in hopes that I can bring the language to the forefront and make folks realize just how important it is. I am also not afraid of tackling the “touchy” subjects to educate folks about Cherokee history. Many ask me why in the world would you make a piece on Andrew Jackson? Because no one ever told me he was a horrible monster and pushed the Trail of Tears through. Why do you make artwork about the Trail of Tears? Because most folks have no clue of the atrocities that Cherokee’s and all Native people have faced through the years. So, for me it’s about bringing awareness to subjects that most are not comfortable talking about, telling our history and representing the language to the best of my ability.
What do I want you to take away from these 100 feet of artwork on the Atlanta BeltLine? That it was all made by a simple man that is untrained in his craft and yet somehow, he has 100 feet of space to show you his works. Remember, I am not, nor never will seek fame and riches beyond my wildest dreams. Anyone can do that! But to have folks interested in your works when you’re a no name is far more rewarding than riches and fame. Interpret each piece as you will, but look closely, because there is always something more hiding just below the surface that you might just miss. Enjoy, tear it apart, criticize it, praise it, love it, hate it. I will take all of your opinions/frustrations/anger/dislike/love simply because you walked those 100 feet. I appreciate all of you, even if you’re not a fan. Because you took time out of your schedule to see what this Cherokee hillbilly created.
Jeff Edwards, of Vian, OK, is an award-winning Cherokee graphic artist who has worked for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, OK for over 23 years. His career at the Nation has always been working with the Cherokee Syllabary and language and he is a language activist and has worked on numerous projects that have projected the Cherokee language into the global spotlight.
He attended Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, KS and received his Associates Degree in Liberal Arts and completed his Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah.
His artwork is almost exclusively Cherokee themed, and he prefers using the Cherokee Syllabary opposed to English to promote the Cherokee language and likes using old cultural concepts but expressing them with modern electronic tools.