Cherokee artist recalls history in painting and sculpture

Cherokee artist recalls history in painting and sculpture

By Susan Johnson

By Susan Johnson

Copy Editor

John Guthrie of Tahlequah, Okla., catches the vision of his Native American heritage and weaves it into the fabric of his artwork–then sends it out to faraway places, with the help of the Internet. Last weekend, it was on display at Cherokee Nation & Indian Art, 8750 N. Second St., in Machesney Park Mall.

A Cherokee artist who has been painting since 1986, Guthrie blends several media together, sometimes keeping it on a flat plane, other times including sculpture in a cotton casting that brings his conception into three-dimensional focus that literally gives the work wings.

A prime example is “The Emergence of Man” recently on display at Cherokee Nation. This huge picture measures 36″ x 48″ x 10″ (depth). It features a bald eagle soaring out from the midst of a blue background. Guthrie explained how this masterpiece was produced. “I do a clay sculpture from a mold. I make paper pulp from a cotton base and press it to the mold. The particular piece is done and treated with gesso, and then it’s painted with acrylic and oils.” The explanation of “Emergence” is: “White is the color of the beginning. This is the American eagle, and he’s coming out of chaos. The characters underneath the eagle are from the canyons out West in pictographs. The four handprints represent the four directions or the four races [of man]. Turquoise is the color of prosperity. That is in the binary numbers that computers use to talk to each other. And the title is ‘The Emergence of Man.’ We are only just now becoming human beings. Up until now, we have been French, English, and Indian and Japanese and so forth. But now we are becoming mankind. It is as a direct result of the computer and the Internet, and it’s brought the whole world closer.”

Some of his pieces reach far back into the distant past, drawing from old legends and stories. The painting “Standing at the Pool of Creation” shows a Native American and animal figures by a pool of water, illustrating an old creation story. The description tells us, “Old Grandfather saw how the land above the sky had become crowded, and he knew he would need to create a place for his Cherokee children to live,” and the parts that various animals played.

‘Through Grandfather’s Eyes’

There is a poignant historical significance in the fine art print “Through Grandfather’s Eyes,” which has been reproduced from an original painting. The background story is that between the years of 1902 and 1905, citizens of the Cherokee Nation were enrolled by the Dawes Commission, for the purpose of allotment and final dissolution. Angie Debo, in her book, And Still the Waters Run, exposed the greed and corruption in what was one of the biggest land grabs of the 20th century. Once the allotments were made, greedy speculators and politicians began swindling the unsuspecting Indians out of their property. Within 20 years, 80 percent of all Indian lands in Oklahoma were in white hands.

Although American citizenship was part of the agreement between the U.S. government and the Cherokee Nation, many Cherokees did not enroll willingly. Redbird Smith, the image reflected in the lamp, was taken in chains to be enrolled at Muskogee. Today, citizenship in the Cherokee Nation is based on the very roll that was meant to do away with the Cherokee forever.

Guthrie stated that the card depicted in the painting “was actually my grandfather’s roll card. He was enrolled and made a citizen of the United States… The writing refers to my great grandmother and my great grandfather.” He added that the book the man holds “exposes the land grab that happened at the turn of the century. The picture of my grandfather’s glasses is there because we can only see through my grandfather’s eyes… The number [at the bottom of the picture] is my Cherokee number as a result of this roll.”

He is proud to add that “this original picture won first place at the Red Earth [Native American festival] in Oklahoma City. It is the largest festival of its kind in the United States.”

A family tradition reaches out

His wife, Connie, and daughter, C. Lie, also are artists in their own right. C. Lie makes clay figurines called “House Minders” to represent the “Little People” house spirits. Connie works with paper pulp sculpted on a clay mold to make Christmas ornaments.

Guthrie notes that Cherokee Nation & Indian Art has carried his work for about 10 years and feels that the public support in the local area is very good. He also appreciates the expanded customer base opened up by the Internet.

“We put up our first website in 1994,” he recalled. “We’ve been on the Internet for a long time. It’s made the world so much smaller because you can communicate with people in China or anywhere in the world. Once in awhile, I’ve shipped some stuff into France and to Canada. We have had several orders where—for instance, an order came from Spain. They gave it as a gift to somebody in Arizona. We didn’t know anybody involved in the transaction; we simply shipped the order. I think that’s kind of cool. That kind of transaction couldn’t happen without the Internet. We had one order from Barrow, Alaska, that was shipped to Cypress, Calif. A lady in Jackson Springs, Wyo., bought one piece, and it went to Sweden. We have got work all over the world.”

Tap into his website at or write him at Guthrie Studios, P.O. Box 751, Tahlequah, OK 74465. For more information on upcoming exhibits, call Cherokee Nation & Indian Art at 282-3877.

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