Hughes prefers local, gathered materials for her art
Cherokee artist Elaine Hughes says she often walks through the lands around Tahlequah to find feathers, clays and other traditional mediums for her pieces. Hughes is the Cherokee Phoenix’s second quarter giveaway artist. D. SEAN ROWLEY/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – There was a time when Elaine Hughes wasn’t quite certain of her identity as an artist or if she would even be an artist.
Today, Hughes markets authentic Native American art from a number of outlets around Tahlequah, and she has donated pieces for the Cherokee Phoenix’s second quarterly giveaway for 2019.
“There were some of my family who were really against being on the (Cherokee Dawes) roll, and I think that took away from my ability to know more,” Hughes said. “Some completely denied being Native, but others said, ‘you need to do this.’”
Hughes, 27, now sells items at venues around town, including Captain Vapor at 2464 S. Muskogee Ave., the Wolf Clan Art Gallery and Boutique on Highway 51 on the east side of Fort Gibson Lake, and the Tahlequah Farmers’ Market.
“This is my third season participating in the farmers’ market, and I am also on Facebook,” Hughes said. “I try to use as much locally sourced material as possible.”
The general public often associates turquoise with American Indian art, and Hughes incorporates the stone in some of her works, but other materials appealed to Native Americans in their creations on a continent-wide scale.
“I do try to look up resources for Native American patterns,” Hughes said. “There can be a little bit of debate about that because a lot of motifs show up across tribes. The thunderbird is a pattern that shows up very often – geometric patterns. You might bet into some specifics like colors that can be attributed to one tribe. Other times it is very broad.”
Hughes gathers items including porcupine quills, bone and antlers “before the mice get to them and gnaw on them,” feathers, sand, pebbles, lichen and earthen materials. She also ventures outside Native arts into other cultures.
“I like pottery, and do some pinch pots,” she said. “I use red earthen clay. I don’t like the white clay. I think it looks better with red. I also make Cherokee double-walled baskets, and the beaded medallions. The beadwork is fairly extensive, and it is not just Native American style. I do love to replicate European-style Victorian lace necklaces.”
A barrel racing mishap was one factor that turned Hughes down the artist’s path. A pinched nerve forced her to abandon competition.
“My best friend’s mother decided I was driving her up the wall and I needed something to do, so she taught me how to make my first pair of earrings,” Hughes said. “That was more than 10 years ago. I started making jewelry, and I haven’t set it down since.”
Since middle school, Hughes had painted. She comes from a lineage of craftspeople, but because of the “dichotomy” within her family concerning its Native heritage, she was uncertain whether she should create Native art. But she got a jolt of encouragement from Cherokee National Treasure and storyteller Robert Lewis.
“I took two of his classes and showed up to plenty more,” Hughes said. “I was trying to stay away from using too many Native motifs. He asked, ‘Well, are you Native?’ Yes. ‘Do you like being Native?’ Yes. ‘Do you like making art?’ Yes. ‘Well, then you make Native art.’” I learned basket weaving and crocheting, but I never identified it as Native art. Then I made the connection when I was in college.”
Hughes graduated at the top of her class from Oologah-Talala High School. She first attended the University of Science and Art of Oklahoma in Chickasha and majored in biology. However, she switched to psychology and graduated magna cum laude from Northeastern State University. The Oklahoma Department of Human Services recently hired her as a child welfare specialist.
She now urges anyone with an interest or passion to follow it and see where it leads.
“What it means to be in artist is just like being writer,” Hughes said. “The only thing you need to be that, is to do it.”