Artist Spotlight: Sandy
Design for the Diné
An interview with Cal Nez
Cal Nez designs for his people. Oh, he can design for anyone – he always has and will – but work for Native Americans has kept him so busy throughout his long career that he hardly has had time to look around for other clients.
“I opened up my studio so I could do work for anybody,” he says. “But as it began to evolve, I was literally the first kid on the Navajo Nation to come by with graphic design. I established the graphic design headlines for the Yellow Pages for the Navajo Nation. They weren’t exactly sure what that was. Rather than just doing drawings and handing them off to the printer I said I was a one-man shop -- give me the whole thing.” For 15 years Cal Nez Design was the only graphic company for the Navajo Nation. |1-2| (Now, he says, there are about 20 Navajo graphic design companies. “It’s the fastest-growing industry.”) There was so much work coming in from there and from other tribes that he quit maintaining other clients. “Last year I did work for the Utah Museum of Natural History,|3| I did work for political campaigns . . . the library system, some government work, but most of my work has been in Navajo and Native American tribes.”
And he doesn’t doubt the excellence of his work, which is manifest. “My position has always been that I can compete with the world’s best. In 1987 in the National Institute of Graphic Arts there was a national competition and I went toe-to-toe with Milton Glaser and Saul Bass and my logo was the only one to show that year. The way I began to view myself is that here is a Native American who sees the contemporary aspect of art and design and commercial art and I understand that, I know what it is and I’m going to give that service to the Native people and the Native people deserve equally as good work as any other company. Any major corporation would pay billions of dollars to graphic design companies of the likes of Saul Bass so I started giving that knowledge [to Native Americans] and it’s been a win-win -- I could feed my family,” he says.
A Navajo of the Tachiinii Clan born for the Tanaszanii Clan originally from Tocito, N.M., Nez was raised by his grandparents from infancy. He spoke only Navajo until forced to enter the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School operated in nearby Sanostee, N.M., when he was 6. It was a militaristic place that he says stole his childhood. But that is where he started drawing. An early pencil sketch of Abraham Lincoln netted him a dollar from a teacher. “I was so proud,” he remembers.
As a Navajo, Nez says, “my life’s agenda is based on the fact that the people who raised me, who nurtured me, were untouched by white society. The traditional aspect of my life was that they wanted me to learn the ways of the people, to learn the ways to survive at a very young age. Probably because grandma was motivated to make sure that we all survived,” he recalls. “When I was about 8 years old the Navajo people would work picking potatoes in Colorado. That’s where my mom and dad went. And this tragic thing happened. My mom died and my dad went to prison and never came back.” He, his two sisters and small brother were essentially orphaned. “Grandma said that all she had to offer me was the tradition. And Grandpa [a medicine man] always tried to bring the Navajo spiritual aspect of it into my life. That’s something that’s still very sacred to me,” Nez says.
His grandparents offered him his first taste of running a business. He recalls his grandmother telling him, “I’m going to give you this cow and you take care of it and then you go in there and you sell it. And with the money you make off of that you can help yourself.” When he was 13 or 14, he sold his cows for around $3,000 one year – a fortune to them. And his grandmother became his banker as he purchased food and clothing through the year for himself and his siblings. He herded animals for two seasons and learned that “if you have a product and a service and if you dedicate your time to it you can benefit from that. And what I’m doing today as a graphic designer dates back to that. My product and my service is my art and I do the same thing.”
In 1973 he left the Navajo reservation for Utah through the LDS Church’s Indian Placement Program, something he had researched and wanted very much to do. He lived with Carlita and Keith Hilton, grandparents of Salt Lake City artist Duncan Hilton, who credits Nez with inspiring him to become an artist when he was about 6 years old.
“He would take requests from the kids and draw any Halloween decoration you could think of. It was amazing to watch him work. He was so quick. At first it would look like a bunch of stray ink lines and then within a matter of seconds his drawings would transform into very believable Frankensteins, vampires, Jack O’ Lanterns. . . . They were far better than any decorations you could buy. It came so naturally to him; he was an alchemist with paper, canvas or any other art medium,” Hilton says.
Nez graduated from South High School where he studied art under Ken Baxter as well as graphic design, joined the wrestling team and worked on the newspaper. He was a Sterling Scholar for the visual arts. He attended Utah State University where he studied, among other things, painting under Harrison Groutage.
He originally wanted to be an illustrator. His first job was with Jack Lyon at Magazine Printing where he saw everything from paste-up to color separation and there decided to become a graphic designer. After working for Ted Nagata Graphic Design Inc. (where he says he really got his education) and Smith and Clarkson Design, Nez determined to start his own company.|4|
He is married to Yolanda Franciso-Nez, Coordinator of the Office of Diversity and Human Rights for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and a former staffer for Mayor Rocky Anderson. They have three grown children. Though they live in Sandy, they are still closely connected to the Navajo Nation, where they make frequent visits.
Nez takes pride in being a Navajo person bridging the gap between cultures. Nez's studio has worked on projects for the Eastman Kodak Co.; Amoco Oil Co.; AT&T; Universal Card; Smithsonian Institute/National Museum of the American Indian; Office of the President of the United States - National Republican Party; Klamath Tribe; Mike Leavitt for Governor Campaign; Navajo Tribal Utility Authority; O.C. Tanner Co.; Utah Department of Workforce Services |5| and others. He designed the Salt Lake City Pin |6| and Mayor’s Pin |7| for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
One of the longest-running Navajo-owned businesses in the country, for 25 years Cal Nez Design has produced brochures, annual reports, product literature, exhibits, posters, advertisements, calendars, flyers, and packaging as well as doing illustration, photography, art direction, copywriting, printing, and fabrication supervision.
Several of his iconic posters for the Navajo Nation Fair are known internationally. |0, 8| These and his past posters for the 24th of July Native American Celebration in the Park |9| (which he founded, along with the corresponding Intertribal Powwow in Liberty Park, see to the right) have sold out on his website. A new one is out this year.|10|
He feels a strong civic responsibility as well. Last year at this time Nez was in Arizona for the launch of the Navajo Chamber of Commerce, of which he was the co-founder and serves as president. “We hope to create a nation where a business owner can thrive and contribute to the positive economic destiny of our people,” he told the Navajo Times. “We can do it. We have it in our spirit and our heart. We were self-sufficient, self-reliant before 1492. We have always had it within us. We need to resurrect that entrepreneurial spirit.” He also founded the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce.
In May a shift occurred in Nez’s career. His artwork was selected as the official 2013 Gallup Ceremonial poster over that of two Navajo legends, Jim Abeita |11| and Calvin Toddy. It’s a very big deal. “All the famous artists got their start there,” Nez says. “That Gallup Ceremonial is like the pinnacle of what you can do in the art world.” Entering the competition was a last-minute decision. He painted all night and in the car on the way to Gallup, N.M. "It is a collage of what I call the Gallup Ceremonial experience. It has a bull rider, the New Mexico state flag in the background. It's very contemporary, very artsy."|12| Now he has a show of his paintings coming up in Gallup in August. He wants to get away from the usual images of Indians in feathers and show Natives in business clothes, fishing and on skateboards. “That’s the people of today. And they deserve as much attention as the people in their traditional outfits.”
Nez doesn’t see much difference between illustration and fine art. He says the studies he does in his mind getting ready for this show are very similar to what he does in graphic design. “Art communicates something. Now you are communicating to a different set of people.”
Hints & Tips: Presentation
Making a Good Presentation
Thoughts from Travis Tanner
Whether you’re an artist, collector, or gallery owner, how to best present works of art is a concern. Colored mats or white? Simple frames or ornate? Gallery wrap or framed? And what about those large works on paper that you see tacked to the walls in museums? And if it’s sculpture, an art book, or something else that can’t be tacked to a wall, how to best display and preserve it?
Sheesh…so many questions…I could write a series. That’s exactly what I propose to do. For this first in the series I visited Travis Tanner, partly because he just moved Tanner Frames to a new location with more production space, and partly because he demonstrates his expertise at framing unusual assemblages with his own three-dimensional collages.
The new location at 18 East 800 South is open for business, though it doesn’t yet have a big sign outside -- think "across from Sears and next to Mini's Cupcakes" and it will be easy to spot. His storefront space, which features a gallery and moulding showrom, is a lot more visible than the former location in the Artspace complex on 500 West. And he has more production space for approximately the same price. “We’re happy we won’t have to raise prices to cover additional costs,” says Tanner.
If you take your art to a framer like Tanner, you not only can pick a frame molding but you can pick his brain as well. Tanner attends the annual West Coast Art and Frame show where all the framing companies display what’s new as well as what’s being phased out. In a sense, the framing industry dictates what Tanner can offer. At the same time, the industry is influenced by interior design trends, both in terms of color and style. For example, currently the rustic, weathered wood look is in, as well as contemporary, streamlined profiles.
Of course, explains Tanner, there will always be the old standbys, like simple black frames. And there will always be a selection of “traditional” and “historic style” frames. But even the traditional changes with time. “When the University has a portrait painted of their new president, they usually like to match the frames of the past presidents’ portraits,” says Tanner. But it may be impossible to find an exact match because the traditional frames have changed.
Part of picking Tanner’s brain is learning what style of frame is appropriate for the period or style of the painting. “It’s important to me to understand how framing and art history go together,” he says. “You want to be period-correct.” Even when a contemporary artist references historic periods, either in style or subject, they may want to consider a historic period frame. A landscape painting in the Hudson River School style, for example, would look best in a Hudson River School frame.
Collectors, too, might consider framing their collections similarly, when appropriate, so that the collection looks cohesive instead of hodge-podge. The same is true of artists. Using similar frames for all your work can be a form of branding, Tanner notes. Someone sees a painting across a crowded gallery and instantly recognizes the artist by the way it is presented. And if artists paint in similar formats, it’s also a way to economize, Tanner says. For example, if a buyer likes your painting but not the frame, no problem. You can give a discount on the unframed painting and use the frame for another similarly sized work. In addition, if Tanner can estimate that a customer will use a lot of the same molding over a period of time, he can buy in volume, get a discount from his supplier, and pass the savings on to the artist.
Because of the way Tanner frames his own 3-D collages, he tends to get unusual projects. “I enjoy a challenge. I enjoy the creative aspect of every project.” Creativity in framing also requires an understanding of how and where the art will be displayed and whether or not it will be shipped. If shipping may be required, Tanner will take extra care that it can withstand the inherent stresses. If the piece requires glass, for example, he may recommend using acrylic, or the more expensive museum-quality acrylic, if the budget allows.
Most artists recognize the importance of framing, but few can afford to ignore the costs, and are often looking for ways to minimize them. “It’s tricky,” Tanner says. “There’s a fine line between something that is inexpensive and something that is cheap looking.” Though everyone must look at the bottom line and not put more money into framing than they can recoup when they sell the work, Tanner says it pays to present your work well. In addition to frames, Tanner also builds supports for artists – stretched canvas, cradled panels, canvas-covered panels, etc. Gallery-wrapped supports allow the artist to finish the sides of the painting with a solid color or by wrapping the image around the sides. It may save some money on framing, but, cautions Tanner, it should be finished in a way that’s professional looking. “Sometimes it’s easier to sell a mediocre painting with a good presentation than a great painting with a bad presentation.”
Event Spotlight: Salt Lake City
Powwow in the Park
For more than 15 years, the drums of the Intertribal Powwow have been heard in Liberty Park just as the Days of ’47 Parade disbanded. Part of the Native American Celebration in the Park, founded by Salt Lake City graphic designer and Navajo Cal Nez and still headed by him, it has grown into an enormous event: 65,000-85,000 people are expected to attend this year.
While other activities that day are free, the powwow costs a lot to put on – the arena director, master of ceremony and tabulator have to be paid and prize money distributed – so there is an admission charge of $5. Anyone under the age of 6 or over 65 attends at no charge. There are two Grand Entry ceremonies, at around noon and 5 p.m. Prize money is given in the drum contest and for males and females in different age categories in the Fancy, Fancy Shawl, Grass, Jingle and Traditional dance categories. Registration begins at 11 a.m. and the powwow goes until the awards ceremony at 8 p.m. Nez encourages you to bring your family and your chairs.
The Main (cultural) Food Court and Arts and Crafts Vending open at 7 a.m. and close at sunset, just before the fireworks display at 10 p.m.
Volunteers and 501(c) 3 donations are always welcome and rewarded with a Cal Nez designed T-shirt. Go to nacip.com for more information.