TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee people once traveled 1,000 miles when the federal government forcibly removed them from their Georgia homeland in 1938, and their descendants today have not forgotten the harsh trek that cost approximately 4,000 lives.
In honor of those who died and those who survived that long walk in the dead of the winter, the longest-running American Indian art show in Oklahoma has returned to the Cherokee Heritage Center with the 47th annual Trail of Tears Art Show, which runs through May 5.
The intertribal art show brought in about 36 percent more entries than usual this year. All the artists are members of a federally recognized tribe, 12 of which were represented in this year's show.
This is CHC Curator Callie Chunestudy's third time to work on the Trail of Tears Art Show, and she said it has improved every year since she began.
"Stiff competition this year," said Chunestudy. "We had to do a lot tougher jurying, because there's only so much space in the gallery. We were able to pick the best of the best that we had to choose from. Our judges then came in and chose the best of those."
Cherokee Nation Citizen Troy Jackson won the Grand Prize for "Adadolisdi - The Prayer," making it his fifth time to receive the award. His work also happens to be on display at a show at NSU.
Jackson said that for a long time, he didn't think he'd ever win, but perseverance and paying close attention to what the judges choose has helped him apply everything he's learned to his own work.
"One thing I incorporate in my life is prayer," Jackson said. "That's what keeps me focused. That's what keeps me grounded and keeps me on task. I wanted to relay that through this part of my life, and a lot of people ask me about the center and why it's cut out. You'll see that in a lot of my pieces, and the reason for that is I believe we as a people have an emptiness inside of us - a void, and we're always trying to fill that void. For me, I fill that void with art, things like family and things that are important to me."
There were 89 artists in this year's show, compared to the usual 60 or 70. With so many artists entering work and competing for the grand prize, Jackson said getting to see them all was his favorite part of the process.
"We get to come together once a year to see what everyone is doing and the progress that each artist makes," said Jackson. "It's just a good time to visit and I think every one of us wants to promote Native American art. I certainly want to do my best, and there are so many good artists that come to this show. Every one of them is a winner to me."
The Emerging Artist Award and the Better Garner Elder Award were presented respectively to Cherokee Nation member Mike Phillips for "Balance of Life" and Choctaw Nation member Norma Howard for "Choctaw Removal." Chunestudy said these awards touch on both sides of the spectrum, allowing young artists to find their niche and elder artists to show what years of practice can do.
"I did notice a good percentage of our art entries this time were from elder artists," she said. "I think that's another reason why the show is so good. A lot of the work in here is from people who have been doing this most of their lives. So they've really developed and honed their styles and made it into something that they can present well."
All the art at the Trail of Tears Art Show is available for purchase. The Cherokee Heritage Center will retain 30 percent of the asking price for pieces. Chunestudy said some of the pieces would be perfect for collectors just starting out.
"I think it's really neat that we have the newer artists coming in, and some of their artwork is really fantastic, yet affordably priced," she said. "A new collector might end up picking up one of those pieces and then kind of growing with that artist as they grow as a collector."