Trading landscapes for Native culture, self-taught artist JD Challenger found his calling.
“When I sit down to work with a model, I ask them, ‘What do you want to see? Tell me a story,’ ” says JD Challenger, a Taos, New Mexico-based artist who has gained international acclaim for his large-scale depictions of Indian chiefs, Native warriors, women, and medicine men. “Some are major stories and some are small stories. But it’s my responsibility to get them right.”
Challenger’s richly rendered acrylics portray subjects clad in traditional dress and ceremonial face paint, surrounded by artifacts and scenes from Native legends and history. But his works don’t romanticize indigenous culture while glossing over a turbulent past: Challenger also peppers his paintings with haunting patriotic symbols, like the American flag and the Bill of Rights, reminding the viewer of centuries-old struggles against oppression and cultural annihilation.
“This is a part of American history that’s really not taught a lot in school — or at least the way it really happened,” Challenger says. “But there’s also a heritage there; there’s a proudness. They have their heroes, too, their way of life. It’s their story I’m telling, not the white man’s version.”
Challenger, who originally hails from Oklahoma, was a young boy when he was first exposed to Native American customs by his step-grandfather, a full-blooded Choctaw. “He had friends that had kids, and we all played together,” Challenger recalls. “The culture, the language, and the people had a major influence on me.” Around the same time, Challenger — a self-taught artist who’s never received any formal training — discovered his artistic bent: “I was one of those kids who scribbled on the walls. If there was a surface somewhere, I attacked it.”
As an adult, Challenger first painted landscapes. But while he earned a modest living and won awards, he didn’t feel artistically fulfilled. His purpose — and aesthetic direction — became clear when he witnessed the filming of a western and saw the cast reenact a Ghost Dance ceremony. “When I saw the regalia — the whole thing around it — I knew right then, That’s it; this is what I’m supposed to do,” Challenger says. “I needed to paint Native culture.”
At first he was hesitant. Who was he to portray a people who weren’t his own? Nevertheless, Challenger created a few pieces and showed them to a group of American Indian friends. “They said, ‘The creator chooses the messenger — we don’t.’ And I was given their blessing.”
Over the course of a decades-long career, Challenger has been commissioned to paint numerous Native portraits — from members of the Seminole Nation to Oren Lyons, one of the last true remaining Iroquois chiefs — and his work can be spotted in galleries and museums, including the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia.
Even after all of his success, Challenger is still surprised by the effect his art can have. “[People experience] every kind of reaction you can think of,” he says. “I’ve had Native people bring their kids or their grandkids and walk up to a painting and start telling them stories about it. It’s been a very humbling experience.”
JD Challenger is represented by Manitou Galleries in Santa Fe; Mainview Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona; Exposures International Gallery of Fine Art in Sedona, Arizona; and Broadmoor Galleries in Colorado Springs, Colorado. From the February/March 2015 issue.