Cherokees create artwork using guitars
CATOOSA, Okla. – Cherokee artist Jeff Edwards recently took on the challenge of transforming an electric guitar into art that will be displayed in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa.
He is one of 39 Cherokee artists who had until April 10 to finish design work on Epiphone-brand guitars. Edwards, of Sallisaw, said he chose images from the book “Sun Circles and Human Hands,” which includes Southeastern-style designs.
“I thought it would look really cool on a guitar and then recreated and customized them to my liking. Since I don’t paint once the images were completed I sent them to…Inkdt in Cincinnati, which is a company that produces custom guitar skins out of the artwork you submit to fit your make and model of guitar,” he said. “By doing the skin it allowed me to produce exactly what I wanted and then apply it to the guitar.”
He said the guitar skin uses the same concept as “skinning” a laptop or cell phone case.
Edwards said he was inspired by custom guitars used by musicians such as Eddie Van Halen, who have a custom guitar design that is unique to them, and created his own unique custom guitar design.
“The most difficult part of the project was deciding what to use and then laying it out on the guitar. I really enjoyed the whole process from creating the images to applying the skin and putting it all back together and having a finished product,” he said.
Verna Bates, of Locust Grove, said her specialty is gourd art but welcomed the challenge of decorating a guitar.
Recently, she has focused on the seven Cherokee clans when designing her gourd masks and used masks representing the clans in her guitar design. Because the guitars are meant for the renovated Wild Potato Buffet, Bates focused on the Wild Potato clan for the front of the guitar and placed designs for all the clans on the back of the guitar.
Bates said she understands that 39 guitars will be displayed in glass cases along the walls of the buffet. Guitars that don’t match the color scheme of the buffet may be placed in other areas of the casino, she said.
Through a Facebook page for artists, Bates said she has seen other guitars being worked on by artists and that some were “awesome” ideas.
She said artists were asked to use a period from “time immemorial to 1790” when coming up with design ideas. Artist then submitted design sketches to casino officials before being chosen to participate in the project.
Bates said she’s glad she is part of a group of artists who are working on a project to inform the public about Cherokee culture and people.
“I can’t wait to see the whole group of them when they are displayed,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be in that group. It’s good to be included. It makes my heart swell.”
He can work with “about any material he can get a hold of” but artist Roger Cain, of Stilwell, chose copper, brass, nickel and aluminum for his guitar. Traditionally, Cherokee people used copper when designing jewelry and ornaments, but Cain said he wanted to use the other materials so the guitar would have contrasting colors.
Cain’s specialty is making gourd booger masks, which were once used in Cherokee ceremonies to show the unbecoming attributes of a people without embarrassing the culprits or to make fun of the unique characteristics of white people.
He placed a bird design on the front of his guitar and a booger face on the back. All of the metal used made the guitar heavy, he said, but added contrasting qualities.
“It was fun process, especially knowing we could do what we wanted to with it as long as we conveyed a Southeastern theme,” he said.
Cain said he hopes the guitar project will lead to the Cherokee Nation leading the way on a public art project like the one in Cherokee, N.C., where larger-than-life bears were painted by artists and placed throughout the town. He envisions possibly using deer, eagles or even large crawfish for the public art project.
“That’d be something to explore for sure, getting more public art here in Tahlequah if we are really wanting to push the art scene here, which has been really great,” he said.
He said he appreciates Cherokee Casinos funding and pushing the Cherokee art scene to where it is constantly changing and evolving and not static.
Roy Boney Jr., of Tahlequah, chose to focus on the feathered, horned serpent of Cherokee legend called the Uktena for his design. He said his talent is drawing and painting with acrylic paint.
“Getting a guitar to paint was something new, something I’d never done before,” he said. “On the front is the snake itself, mainly the head, coming at you. On the back I’m going to paint the word Uktena in the (Cherokee) syllabary, but it’s going to be splashy, like dirty and messy to go with the idea of hard rock.”
Boney’s design includes a “happy mistake” because the gloss finish he used began to peel when he removed the mask he had put on the front of the guitar to protect it while he painted the back. However, the peeled paint only added to the rough design he hoped to achieve, he said.
“So the idea now is to make the surface of the guitar look like it’s been dinged up a lot by somebody on tour with this guitar,” he said.
Boney played the guitar when he was younger, so taking apart the guitar wasn’t too difficult for him, he said, but taking it apart and making sure he could incorporate his design on it was difficult.
The Uktena also dominates the design of Karen Berry of Garland, Texas. She also usually works with gourds, and as a whole, she said working on the guitar didn’t prove to be much of a challenge for her because she’s used to working with hollow gourds.
“It’s a big gourd really. I’m used to working on something three dimensional like that,” she said. “I enjoyed it and had a lot of fun.”
The Uktena is on the front and back of her guitar, and she used a Cherokee mound builders scroll pattern on the fretwork.
“I didn’t make mine (Uktena) scary looking,” she said.
Designing the scroll pattern on the fret board was the most difficult part of the process, Berry said, because the frets were glued on.
“They actually get closer together down toward the head of the guitar and I didn’t realize that. So I couldn’t really center the scroll on the frets, so that was really difficult. I just kind of had to draw around the frets,” she said.
She said from her observations, it seems every artist with a guitar has done something “completely different.” There are Cherokee painters, graphic artists, sculptors, metal workers, beaders, booger mask makers, basket makers and potters involved in the project.
Graphic artist Joseph Erb’s design is centered on old Cherokee iconography or symbols. He used symbols of old bears, raccoons and flat-style birds and two Uktena horned serpents swirl up on the back of the guitar with their tongues lashing out.
“The movement of the whole piece is actually sectioned and it deals with the old concepts of this world and the next world,” he said. “The Uktenas were in between both worlds.”
He said the front part of his guitar deals with the world now and the design transitions to the design on the back of the guitar.
“It’s a flat design, and I want my piece to be smooth and elegant and clean looking. I want it to have that old-style look, but something that looks highly modern,” he said.
He sent his design to a company to have a skin made for his guitar and then adhered the skin around the guitar.
Erb believes the guitar project will be a “game changer” for the Cherokee art world because artists “really stepped up their game.” He also believes the guitars will be their own attraction among the other Hard Rock attractions.
“It seems in the last five years the artists are starting to come together and talk more, and it seems to really help their work. When you see something cool that someone did, you can’t just turn anything in now. You’ve got to turn something nice in because you just saw three people that blew your mind, and now it’s your turn,” he said.