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Mississippian Culture Comes to Life in ‘Spring’

Symbols of rebirth, fresh beginnings, good luck and prosperity seem more than appropriate for the first blanket in the Pendleton Woolen Mills “Legendary” series featuring Mississippian designs.

Chickasaw artist Dustin Mater said that the design on the “Spring” blanket is based on the ancient culture that brought new life and a creative spark to his artwork. “I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil, but I spent years trying to find my inspiration,” said Mater. “I was drawing monsters and doing abstract art painting and stuff that didn’t really have meaning, just finding what I could do. I never thought my art had anything to offer my family or my tribe.”  

Then he was asked to create artwork for a traditional Chickasaw story “Spider Brings Fire,” and “Lowak Shoppala” (Fire and Light), a theatrical production based on Chickasaw history and culture. As part of the projects, he delved into research of Mississippian culture, symbols and designs. “These Mississippian patterns just spoke to me. It started growing and growing and growing,” he explained, the intensity in his voice rising with every word. “I just started having ideas blossom in my own head and in my own research that I was doing.  It was just continuing the bloom of different ideas.”

While he was excited about the new direction of his artwork, one of his first showings drew a less than enthusiastic response.  “The first time I showed my artwork based on Chickasaw culture was at Red Earth in 2010 and most of the time I just got questions of ‘what is it?’ People were not really getting what I was doing as an artist,” he said.

Undeterred, he approached Pendleton with this simple question – “How do I get my artwork on one of your blankets?” He was asked to send in some of his designs for consideration. He submitted 10 of his designs in 2011 and “Spring” was selected to become part of the Legendary series. “To have Pendleton see it and respond so positively to it kind of made me feel validated as an artist – that what I’m doing is on the right path,” he said. 

His philosophy has always been to “study everything, absorb everything. Be a sponge. You never know where inspiration is going to hit you.” His artistic influences run the gamut from Japanese illustrators to Monet to comic books. Mater attended Santa Monica College and the Multimedia Institute in North Hollywood, and has continued to develop his skill set through different kinds of artistic adventures in different mediums. 

Now, whether he is engraving traditional shell gorgets, etching designs in glass, or creating graphic designs for poster art, his work bears the mark of his ancient Mississippian culture. “My inspiration is the Mississippian mound builders in the old territories where the Muskogean people – where we all come from – Chickasaw and Choctaw people come from,” Mater said. “I don’t feel that any of this artwork belongs to me or to anyone else. This is our birthright. We all dip from the same well artistically. From (Classical music composer) Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate to (textile artist) Margaret Roach Wheeler to (painter) Brent Greenwood.”

Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby said that it “means a great deal” to have Chickasaw culture represented on a Pendleton blanket. “A Pendleton blanket based on the original design of a Chickasaw artist is a very meaningful way to share a part of our culture with the world,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “Dustin Mater is very deserving of this honor. He is using his talent in a way which pays tribute to the many generations of Chickasaw artists who have embraced our culture and tradition.”

Mater says he thinks the blanket designs signifying rebirth and fresh beginnings are especially appropriate because of what is happening with artwork based southeastern American Indian culture. “Right now it’s a good time to be a Mississippian modern artist, because it is in a renaissance,” he said. “We are rediscovering, and enabling the world to discover this artwork. It’s an exciting time to do this. I would recommend any aspiring artiss or who wants to know more about the culture to go beyond the trail, to go beyond the first contact and just keep on digging…there is so much that is unexplored.”

He feels fortunate his work at the Chickasaw Nation offers a unique avenue to pursue his passion. “My work here enables me to help keep my culture alive bykeeping the artwork alive. I feel like I’m part of something larger. I hope what I’m doing will inspire others.”

By Tony Choate, quoted by Pendleton Woolen Mills with permission of the author

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  1. Mississippian culutre | Halleyscarpet

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