WAUHILLAU -- United Keetoowah Band citizen Matt Girty began creating art in his youth while discovering his Native identity. Nearly 26 years later, the United Keetoowah Band Tradition Keeper is well-known for his stone carvings, capturing his culture in art.

Born in Dallas to full-blood, Cherokee-speaking parents, Girty was unable to learn the language, and learned about his heritage from his environment.

"I used to draw all the time. Back in the (19)70s what really influenced me...there was like a big (American Indian) movement, what people were doing in the big cities," Girty said. "What I figured out now as I got older, they were bringing Indian identity back. When you grow up in the city, you're pretty much just one in a bucket of a lot of different people, so if you see another Indian, you automatically connect. So in artwork, I seen that it brought people together."

After seeing the "enlightenment" his drawings brought others, he decided to focus on art.

"That's what brought me the challenge of becoming an artist," Girty said. "I don't really like calling myself an artist. I like calling myself an Indian who likes to carve and do what our ancestors did years ago and try to make that connection, because I lost that."

A friend from North Carolina introduced him to soapstone in 1994. When he realized he could turn his two-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional carvings, he began the process of being a full-time artist.

"I had no idea that Cherokees even did stuff like that. I did my research, kept carving, kept carving and tried to find that soapstone," Girty said. "I didn't know that Cherokees used it. It was all in the Appalachian Mountains...With that being said, today I try to stick with Keetoowah Cherokee-specific materials as far as stones."

Along with soapstone, he works with alabaster, marble and granite.

Girty said he started out using basic tools such as a pocketknife, hacksaw, file and drill. He's since upgraded to power tools, depending on the type of carving. He's also experienced in effigy pipes and figurative sculptures that are Cherokee-specific.

"When I'm carving I meet God in the middle with those beautiful rocks that he already created," Girty said. "I'm just advancing it further to where me and him can meet. It's really therapy for me. If I'm doing a turtle, I see how the Lord made that turtle. I always start with a middle mark in everything I do."

Because of his experience, he can do larger life-sized sculptures as well as gravestones. He said stone carving is essential to Native people. "That goes with language and our culture. Without that, we're nothing. I found out soapstone carving is dead here. I don't see many carvings here. It's not just essential to Keetoowah Cherokees, its essential to all five (civilized) tribes. We all carve."

He said a bright spot in creating art being able to pass on his knowledge. "I was able to be in a lot of classrooms where I'm with a high Native population, where I'm able to speak to these kids and that really inspires me to really look at how far I came. That's one of the bright spots of my career where it's brought me and they listen to me. That's what I want to show our people out here, is that feeling that I get when I complete a piece and just to know that you can create something with just your hands."

For information on Girty's art, find him on Facebook or email cherokeecustomcarvings@gmail.com.