We talked with Tulsa-based artist Johnnie Diacon about his art, his Native heritage, and how it all came together in his new mural.
After Tulsa-based artist Johnnie Diacon (Muscogee Creek) was adopted as a baby by family friends Delmer (Cherokee) and Helen Diacon, it took a while for his parents to figure out he had problems with his eyesight. The world was a haze to him till the fourth grade, when he was sent to an optometrist. Fitted with corrective lenses, he saw bright colors in paintings hanging on the office walls. “The optometrist was a non-Native and an avid collector of traditional flat-style painting. I saw the images were Indian, and it was almost a spiritual thing.”
Growing up, Diacon worked with his father, a graphic artist and sign painter, and began his own painting career watching his dad and practicing sign painting with him. In high school his interest in art grew and he began replicating the flat style that had been such a revelation to him. Attending Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Diacon studied the flat style under master artist Ruthe Blalock Jones (Delaware, Shawnee, Peoria). While he was still in school, he started getting invited to shows and began selling small paintings he’d done 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’s the one who made this all happen,” he says.
Today Diacon combines the traditional flat style and contemporary influences, thematically keeping “a focus on painting my own people.” His work attracted the attention of the Museum of Native American History (MONAH), in Bentonville, Arkansas, which commissioned him to paint a Trail of Tears mural; unveiled in May, it comprises three large panels on the museum’s south exterior wall. The artwork helped earn MONAH, which had already been an official stop on the Arkansas Trail of Tears, a permanent place on the National Trail of Tears Association’s map of destinations.
Trail of Tears mural
We talked with Diacon about his art, his Native heritage, and how it all came together in the new mural.
Cowboys & Indians: Where do you do your painting?
Johnnie Diacon: We have this midcentury ranch house in Tulsa. Our cars are too big to fit in the garage, so we converted the garage into a studio. There’s no heat or running water — just a small refrigerator and a little heater. This winter the weather was brutal. I lose track of time when I’m painting, and acrylics don’t freeze. It was cold and I sometimes just sat there. My wife would get me to stop. It helped me think about the suffering my ancestors experienced.
C&I: You’ve been at work on a mural depicting the Trail of Tears, the U.S. government’s series of forced removals between 1830 and 1850 of about 100,000 Native Americans — Muscogee Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw — from the Southeast to “Indian Territory.” What is your connection to that?
Diacon: My people got to Oklahoma by the Indian Removal Act. This mural is a part of who I am. I’m telling their story. I think of this as a commemorative piece. The mural is made up of three panels and is massive, almost life-size. We brought our language and culture with us. We are survivors and are thriving. I have peach trees in my yard grown from saplings given to me by a friend whose forefather carried peach pits with him on the trail.
C&I: How did you decide to visually represent the Trail of Tears?
Diacon: A lot 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 a different color. They walk through a forest and everything has spirit. I put just as much care in painting the trees as I did in painting the figures. The trees are witnesses.
Omvlkvt Opvnvks (Everybody Dance) Green Corn Suite
C&I: Would you share the invitation you wrote for the May 8 unveiling of the mural?
Diacon: Sure. “I did this work as a tribute to our ancestors who made this journey from our ancestral homelands 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 enjoy many of the things we hold dear to this day such as our culture, languages, and our sovereignty because of their spirit and dedication. It is with honor that I humbly dedicate this work to our ancestors, our relatives, and to the relatives yet born.”
C&I: You quit art for more than a decade after the tragic deaths of your two daughters. What happened to make you return to painting?
Diacon: We went to an event in Tulsa, and I saw two eagles brought there by the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma’s Grey Snow Eagle House’s rehabilitation program. I sensed a sacred message from the eagles that they were injured but were still eagles. I understood I was hurt but the Creator gave me this gift to use. That same day I ran into my friend Shan Goshorn. She always appeared when something good happened, and I said, “This is a sign” and picked up my art where I left off.
C&I: U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo chose your (Everybody Dance) Green Corn Suite as the art for the jacket cover for her book An American Sunrise. Tell us a little about that painting and what it was like to have Harjo recognize it.
Diacon: I was honored. I love her work and her previous book’s cover was a painting by one of my favorite Mvskoke artists, Solomon McCombs. I am a record keeper, and my art will be around a lot longer than me. We’re now getting these opportunities to tell our story.
Visit Johnnie Diacon on Facebook and Twitter. He has work in the Wyld Gallery in Austin, Texas, and prints for sale in the Redstick Gallery in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Find out more about the Museum of Native American History on their website.
Photography: (Trail of Tears) courtesy Monah, (All others) courtesy Johnnie Diacon
Cover image: Tribute to the Healthcare Warriors in Indian Country during COVID-19
From our August/September 2021 issue