The images of full blood Cherokee artist Donald Vann speak of peace and tranquility, of solitude. They speak of yesterday’s tradition and tomorrow’s promise. Through his work, Donald takes the viewer to a place that is as real to him as the tangible world. To see his paintings is to feel the crunch of snow beneath one’s feet, to hear the wind whisper through the aspen trees, to smell the wood smoke and buffalo hide tipis. It is to know the soft-spoken man behind the paper and paint.
“All my life,” Donald explains, “I have had this desire to paint. With images I can express thoughts and feelings I could never put into words. Through my art I am able to transcend the limitations of the spoken word.”
But it is more than just his Native American heritage Donald strives to share. Warriors on horseback, a medicine man greeting the dawn, young maidens gathering wood are only the means of conveying moods that are much more universal. He uses those images to tell how he feels about the unseen forces that influence life. Donald draws his greatest inspiration from the earth and sky, from the rhythms of nature. His creations have a mystical quality that allow the viewer to share some of the inner facets of the Indian soul. “In our world, there is an unspoken quality, a feeling that touches and flows through everything–all of us as well as all things of the earth. If one listens to these forces, he will find himself painting instinctively with the feeling of his heart, about his ancestral beliefs and the way people live today.”
These spiritual elements have been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. “Growing up, I was always a loner,” Donald recalls. “I spent a lot of time hunting, but that was really just a way of being by myself out of doors. That is where I felt the most comfortable and in tune with the natural spirits evident in all things.”
When he wasn’t camping with his grandfather or hunting in the woods near his boyhood home outside Stillwell, Oklahoma, Donald remembers painting–or trying to, anyway. “I didn’t fit in too well at school. Even the one art class I took, I flunked. But then, I always thought education got in the way of learning. I was much more interested in the teachings of the holy man for my clan and in the survival and herb skills my grandparents taught me.”
By combining his love for art and his Cherokee heritage, Donald is able to create moving images that speak of the Indian way of life and capture the hearts of art collectors worldwide. He is recognized for his haunting images of his people’s heritage, especially his portrayal of the Trail of Tears. He was proclaimed “one of the best known Indian artists working in this century” by the Cherokee National Historical Society. The Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian honored him with their top painting award for watercolor painting. He has also won first place ribbons in juried competitions at Oklahoma’s Red Earth Exhibit, the Colorado Indian Market and the National American Indian Arts Exposition.
More than 50 different editions of his signed and numbered prints are now collectors items. He has taken top honors at shows from Texas to Ohio, and Minnesota to North Carolina. And yet, public acceptance is what matters most to Donald.
“Through my images,” Donald says when asked of his success, “I hope people will be inspired to learn more about the customs and values of America’s native people. Our traditions teach many things that can help all people. In today’s fast-paced world, it is too easy to get cut off from one’s heritage and lose sight of the things that are truly important. If I can make people see with their hearts instead of their eyes, then my art has spoken. Then I have succeeded.