Art gallery: Johnnie Diacon – Cowboys and Indians Magazine


We spoke with Artist based in Tulsa, Johnnie Diacon about his art, his Indigenous heritage and how it all came together in his new mural.

ABy Tulsa-based artist, Johnnie Diacon (Muscogee Creek) was adopted as a baby by the family friends Delmer (Cherokee) and Helen Diacon, it took a long time for his parents to realize that he had vision problems. The world was a fog for him until the fourth year, when he was sent to an optometrist. Equipped with corrective glasses, he saw vivid colors in paintings hung on the walls of the office. “The optometrist was a non-native and an avid collector of traditional flat painting. I saw that the pictures were Indian, and it was almost a spiritual thing.

Growing up, Diacon worked with his father, a graphic designer and sign painter, and began his own career as a painter watching his father and practicing sign painting with him. In high school his interest in art grew and he began to replicate the flat style that had been such a revelation to him. While attending Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Diacon studied the flat style under the direction of master artist Ruthe Blalock Jones (Delaware, Shawnee, Peoria). While still in school, he began to be invited to exhibitions and began to sell small paintings that he had made in class. Encouraged by his longtime friend and future wife, Nikki, Diacon eventually studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. “She was the one who made it all possible,” he says.

Today, Diacon combines the traditional flat style with contemporary influences, thematically keeping “the emphasis on painting my own people”. His work caught the attention of the Museum of Native American History (MONAH), in Bentonville, Arkansas, who asked him to paint a Trail of Tears mural; inaugurated in May, it includes three large panels on the south exterior wall of the museum. The artwork helped earn MONAH, which had once been an official stopover on the Arkansas Trail of Tears, a permanent place on the National Trail of Tears Association’s destination map.

Trail of Tears mural

We spoke with Diacon about his art, his Indigenous heritage, and how it all came together in the new mural.

Cowboys & Indians: Where do you paint?
Johnnie Diacon: We have this mid century ranch in Tulsa. Our cars are too big to fit in the garage, so we converted the garage into a studio. There is no heating or running water, just a small refrigerator and a small heater. This winter the weather was brutal. I lose track of time when painting and acrylics don’t freeze. It was cold and sometimes I just just sat there. My wife would make me stop. It helped me think about the suffering that my ancestors went through.

THIS : You worked on a mural depicting the Trail of Tears, the US government’s series of forced displacements between 1830 and 1850 of approximately 100,000 Native Americans – Muscogee Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw – from southeast to Indian Territory. “What’s your connection to that?
Deacon: My people came to Oklahoma through the Indian Removal Act. This mural is part of who I am. I tell their story. I consider this to be a commemorative coin. The mural is made up of three panels and is massive, almost life-size. We brought our language and our culture with us. We are survivors and we are thriving. I have peach trees in my yard grown from saplings given to me by a friend whose ancestor took peach stones with him on the trail.

THIS : How did you decide to visually represent the Path of Tears?
Deacon: Much of their journey was on foot in bad weather and there were no regular paths to Indian territory. It’s not to make anyone feel guilty. The figures are wrapped in blankets, each of a different color. They are walking through a forest and everything is witty. I took as much care in painting the trees as in painting the characters. The trees are witnesses.

Omvlkvt Opvnvks (Everyone is dancing) Green corn suite

THIS : Would you share the invitation you wrote for the May 8 mural unveiling?
Deacon: Sure. “I did this work as a tribute to our ancestors who made this trip from our ancestral lands to Indian territory. The mural is dedicated to their perseverance in adverse conditions and to honor and remember them for their sacrifices. We are the descendants of these courageous and strong people. They were survivors. Because of them, we appreciate many things that are dear to us to this day, such as our culture, our languages ​​and our sovereignty because of their spirit and dedication. It is with honor that I humbly dedicate this work to our ancestors, our loved ones and those still born.

THIS : You abandoned art for more than a decade after the tragic deaths of your two daughters. What happened to make you come back to painting?
Deacon: We went to an event in Tulsa, and saw two eagles brought there by the Gray Snow Eagle House rehabilitation program from the Iowa tribe of Oklahoma. I felt a sacred message from the eagles that they were hurt but they were still eagles. I understood that I was hurt but the Creator gave me this gift to use. The same day, I ran into my friend Shan Goshorn. She would always show up when something good happened, and I would say, “It’s a sign” and pick up my art where I left off.

THIS : American poet laureate Joy Harjo has chosen your (Everyone is dancing) Green Corn Suite like the art for the cover of his book jacket An American sunrise. Tell us a bit about this painting and what it was like to have Harjo recognize it.
Deacon: I was honored. I love his work and the cover of his previous book was a painting by one of my favorite Mvskoke artists, Solomon McCombs. I am a recorder, and my art will be around much longer than me. Now we have these opportunities to tell our story.

Visit Johnnie Diacon on Facebook and Twitter. He worked at the Wyld Gallery in Austin, Texas, and prints for sale at the Redstick Gallery in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. To learn more about the Museum of Native American History, visit their website.

Photograph: (Trail of Tears) courtesy of Monah, (All others) courtesy of Johnnie Diacon

Cover image: Tribute to health warriors in Indian country during COVID-19

From our August / September 2021 issue

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