Choctaw artist D.G. Smalling poses with a sculpture he created using glass and steel. The four-sided tipi, which he says represents tribal, state, and federal judicial systems working together in unison and with necessary transparency, is prominently displayed in the Oklahoma Judicial Center’s Supreme Court Reception Room in Oklahoma City.
Expressing cultural, historical ideals through art
By LARISSA COPELAND
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
To represent the tribe as a presenter at Choctaw Days at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is a huge, humbling honor, says artist D.G. Smalling of Oklahoma City, an honor that helps to affirm the skills and ideals he has dedicated his life to representing.
“Number one, to be there with the tribe is a very important thing; it validates me as an artist. It validates, too, that the nation sees value in it. That is exciting to me, that I’ll be there presenting with my peers,” he says.
“Second, the Smithsonian is a big thing, huge,” he adds. “To be there, to just be present for this, it means a lot. I grew up as a kid going to the Smithsonian and I always get excited about it.”
Creating art has been a lifelong venture for Smalling, though he’s only been at it professionally for nine years. Though his Choctaw roots are prevalent in his work, his methods are varied and his influences vast. Smalling is quick to point out that his style is such that he can’t be boxed into any particular category.
“I’m an artist,” he asserts, “not just a ‘Native artist.’ I’m Native, yes, but I am adamant about not being pigeonholed with who I am as an artist. I need the flexibility.”
It was this diversity that has made different cultures seek out and appreciate his work. His first piece exhibited to the public was in a Cuban gallery in Miami, Fla., something that helped affirm to himself that he was being taken seriously in the field.
“The fact that it was a non-Native gallery that exhibited my art authenticated to me that I am an artist,” he says. “It showed me that subject matter wasn’t what was important. It was the skill of my technique that attracted them to my work.”
Today, his pieces are displayed in museums, galleries, government buildings and homes in locations around the world. Smalling creates in many formats, from painting and drawing, to sculptures of steel and glass. “My art is proportionate, fluid.”
Working with Choctaw hieroglyphs, one technique he often uses is a contemporary “one line” format, the drawing of a single, constant line without interruption to create intricately detailed sketches. “I use the old ways but keep it modern,” he says. “That’s exciting to me.”
His methods are also simple and done with commonly used tools, such as Sharpie® markers and pens. “I want kids to be able to see what I do and what I use so they’ll realize, ‘hey, I can do that,’ when they see that my tools are readily available,” he says, crediting the diversity of exposure to other artists and situations throughout his life.
Smalling grew up in Idabel and Haworth, but then at age 8, he and his family packed up and left southeastern Oklahoma to do missionary work overseas. Together, they lived in Switzerland, Cameroon, and South Africa, where he was continually influenced both politically and artistically by his travels and exposure to other cultures.
After graduating high school in South Africa, while his parents continued their missionary work in numerous countries around the world, Smalling returned to the United States to attend the University of Oklahoma where he earned his degree in political science. Today, while creating art feeds one passion, his full-time job in Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Yvonne Kauger’s Sovereignty Symposium office, fuels another passion for him – educating tribal members.
“I owe a debt to my tribe,” he explains. “My great-grandmother, it would have been so easy for her to forget, to not carry on the language, the culture. We could have disappeared so easily. But she refused. My faith and my debt is so much that I have to continue it. It’s a beautiful obligation.
“It is important for us to remember that someone far back in our families felt strongly enough that we need to be Choctaw, that in the face of everything that tried to submit it, to beat it out of them, they refused,” he continued. “That’s why I refuse. I celebrate it that we survived. That’s why I say there is a debt. This is who I am and I’m proud of that.”
Along with the responsibility of educating and empowering of tribal members, he believes strongly for tribes to encourage the output of quality art and Native-created items. “We fought long and hard to control our art,” he says, referring to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. “It’s important that we understand and respect that.”
He says tribes can ensure that idea by developing an artist registry with quality artists who accurately reflect its history and views. “Outside people go to the registry when seeking out art from a particular tribe and registries are often their starting point. The registry reflects back on the tribe and is why the artists need to be vetted – to ensure the tribe is represented in the right way. The quality is just as important as who is making it.”
Smalling plans to take that to heart when he presents at Choctaw Days at the NMAI in Washington, D.C. There, he will display his work and do demonstrations, along with lectures and presentations on the Choctaw Code Talkers. Smalling is a great-grandson of World War I Code Talker Calvin Wilson.
Choctaw Days will take place at the NMAI from June 20-23. The public is encouraged to visit the event and experience Smalling’s artwork and knowledge, along with additional artists, dancers and others representing the tribe, and take part in a memorable, rich Choctaw cultural experience.
Additionally, Smalling can be heard every Saturday morning hosting a radio program on Oklahoma City station, The Spy FM. His hour-long show is dedicated to discussing pertinent topics and trends with leaders and friends in Indian country, and also showcasing the music of Native artists, giving them a platform to show their diversity and talent. Podcasts and apps to remotely listen to his show are available for download on www.TheSpyFM.com/shows/ndn-country/.
Smalling adds color detail to one of his “one line” sketches. The entire drawing is made with a single continuous line without interruption, pictured below in closer detail.