TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Cherokee artist Donald Vann started from humble beginnings in Adair County, drawing on T-shirts and scraps of paper. He went on to serve his country in the Vietnam War, and later became one of the most well-known Native American artists in the country with his works that blend Cherokee culture and personal experiences to provide a sense of peace to his audience.
Vann, 63, grew up in Stilwell mimicking the drawings of his uncles as a young boy. The first piece of artwork he ever sold was a drawing of Christ on the cross for a local church. He was 10 years old and was paid 75 cents. When he went into the ninth grade at Stilwell Junior High, the principal, Dr. Neil Morton, was introduced to Vann’s talent when he asked some students where they got their Beatles T-shirts and found that Vann was the source. Morton quickly recognized that Vann was not like other students and enrolled him in an alternative program, buying him painting supplies out of his own pocket and allowing him to paint murals on the school’s walls for two hours every day.
“At that time, school wasn’t made for people like Donald. School was a square hole, and Donald was a round peg in a square hole,” Morton, now the senior advisor to Cherokee Nation Education Services, said. “I’m extremely proud of being a small part of not only Donald’s life, but for assisting him in finding himself in the media of art.”
Morton’s assessment of Vann’s academic needs went ignored when he progressed to high school, where he struggled. Vann dropped out and moved to Montana. There he attended Job Corps, graduating at 14 with his G.E.D., and afterward returning to Oklahoma to re-enter high school.
During this time, Vann met Jerome Tiger, a famous Indian artist from Muskogee, along with Tiger’s agent Nettie Wheeler. Through Tiger, Vann’s natural talent and cultural influences became honed and developed beyond the expectations of one so young.
“I was his first and only student he ever had that actually came to his house and painted on his work table,” Vann said. “I was so impressed and in awe with Jerome. He and Nettie are who really got me started.”
Shortly before his high school graduation, he dropped out again and voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army. Vann served in the Vietnam War and was assigned to the 1st Calvary Aviation Division. He served as a door gunner with the 1st of the 9th, dropping off and extracting soldiers from the battlefield. He was still able to put his artistic skills to work during his military service.
“I did insignias on helicopters and insignias on CO’s helmets. They liked that,” Vann said. “I did some Indian images on the noses of some helicopters, like feather tomahawks or a cartoon-looking Indian coming at you with a bow and arrow and a knife. Most of our helicopters were named after Indians at that time, like Iroquois and Apache. And stuff like that got me points with my ranking officers.”
In November of 1969, Vann’s helicopter was shot down. Only he and his crew chief survived the violent crash. After recovering from his injuries, Vann rejoined his unit in Fort Hood, Texas, where he was assigned to desk duty and later went on to be a drill instructor over 16 cycles. In March of 1973, he received an honorable discharge. He had accrued several medals, including the Purple Heart, National Defense, Good Conduct, Vietnam Campaign and The Republic of Vietnam Campaign.
After being discharged from service, Vann attempted to move back home to Adair County but was unable to find the peace he felt in Texas. He moved back to Austin where he stayed nearly 40 years. As Native American art’s popularity grew in the early ‘70s, Vann’s skills were in high demand, and he soon found himself with a business partner starting a publishing company called Nuwoduhi Galleries, later renamed Native American Images. Before long, Vann’s artwork was being displayed in galleries across the world, on television shows and movies, and in the homes and offices of private collectors.
“If I can make people see with their hearts and feel with their eyes, then I have succeeded,” he said.
Today, Vann makes his home and studio in Tahlequah with his family. He takes the occasional tour to galleries across the country, but most of his work is now showcased and sold online, including originals, prints and even low-cost posters.
On June 10, Vann will be one of three veterans honored by the Cherokee Nation at its Tribal Council meeting in Tahlequah. He will be passing out signed posters of his work and providing special prints for his fellow veterans.
Cherokee Nation News Release
Julie Hubbard - 918-207-3896
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