Cherokee artist creating art piece representing tribes in Oklahoma
Cherokee Nation citizen Joseph Erb, of Tahlequah, is a professor at the University of Missouri School of Visual Studies. In 2019, he was selected to create a large piece of copper artwork for the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City that will open in September 2021. COURTESY
Cherokee artist Joseph Erb works on copper gorgets that are worn as a necklace. The gorgets are based on those given to Cherokee leaders by British emissaries in the 1700s. COURTESY
A copper bracelet created by Cherokee artist Joseph Erb includes designs representing the Cherokee Phoenix logo and modern tools. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH – The First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City will open September 2021, celebrating a shared history of 39 distinct tribal nations in Oklahoma.
Cherokee Nation citizen Joseph Erb, of Tahlequah, is creating an art project for the museum as part of the Oklahoma Art in Public Places Program. He was invited, along with two other Native artists, to submit ideas for artwork to be placed in a 25-foot-by-30-foot copper wall area of the museum. In 2019, he met with a committee that gave him and the other artists a month to submit preliminary designs. The artists were directed to submit sketches representing the 39 tribes in Oklahoma.
“It was kind of a big task because they wanted some complexity to the concept from many of the tribal groups being moved here, also some of the historical things that have occurred since we’ve been here plus some of the cultural elements and unique qualities of those 39 tribes,” Erb said. “We had to put a proposal together and give a presentation for this competition.”
Within a month he said he had his concept and presented it. He said he didn’t believe he would win the project based on the competing artists.
“My main thing was to compete and try not to embarrass myself. I just wanted to do a really good job of submitting. I didn’t expect to get it, but I was very honored to be asked,” he said. “I was amazed that they selected me. It’s actually one of the biggest honors I’ve ever had.”
Erb, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Visual Studies, titled his submission “Indigenous Brilliance.” He said it showcases the brilliance of past, present and future Indigenous people in Oklahoma. In January, officials representing the museum and the Oklahoma Arts Council notified him he had been selected, and they wanted to go over his sketch to learn more about his design and how it could be finished.
Erb said by taking part in the competition he wanted opportunities to show his artwork “in that amazing museum” even if he didn’t win. He said he believes because he has worked with copper before to create art it helped him win.
“I think it’s because I’ve done copper work in the past, and people have seen my work and liked it,” he said. “I’m assuming I added a modern, fresh feel to that genre. Indian Country has no shortage of amazing and talented people, and I was on a very short list selected to compete for this. I was blown away that I even got into the selection group.”
He said working on the piece made him think about the idea that Native people are hindered by western education. For instance, Indigenous people are not given credit, he said, for the fruits and vegetables they cultivated or the medicines they discovered.
“This brilliance was passed down from generation to generation, and it’s something we don’t always think about because we’re so pigeonholed into the 1800s as an oppressed group,” he said. “If you get beyond that limited narrative you realize these are really spectacular cultures coming to this area through forced removals. They brought their brilliance and creativity with them, and they’re still here and doing amazing things.”
Those thoughts inspired Erb’s submission, and he said he changed his perspective on the Indigenous people who lived in and were forced to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
Erb said he’s more of the designer for the artwork and is working remotely with a manufacturing group that is working on the pieces. He approves the pieces as they are completed. People can see his finished art piece when the museum opens in September.
Located at the intersection of three interstates, the museum is expected to attract travelers from all over and serve as a place where people can gather for the study, reflection and celebration of Native culture, museum officials said.
“The museum is really impressive because a lot of times people talk about Native representation,” Erb said. “It’s an amazing thing, and you feel that when you go into the museum. It’s more of a celebration of Indigenous culture than an archetype of what a Native-ness is.”