Public art adds beauty, a sense of belonging and a unique platform for a community to share its story. The accessibility and the opportunity to experience art in multidimensional, multi-sensory and often out-of-the-box ways also make public art especially perfect for kids to enjoy.
“Public art gives folks the opportunity to have an experience with art in a way that’s less intimidating, especially for kids who want to touch things and have a complete experience,” said Travis Owens, director of cultural tourism for the Cherokee Nation. “It meets people where they are to interpret in their own unique ways, and it gives you a different perspective on what art is, what it can be and how to interact with it.”
When kids are invited to touch, engage with and consider the meaning of public art, their own creativity, imaginations and capacities for learning are piqued … and the same can be true for their grown-ups. Incredible public art like murals and statues abound throughout Oklahoma, but the works created by Native artisans and about Native heritage provide a special bridge between this integral part of Oklahoma’s history and our state’s collective future.
“Art is meant to be shared, and it’s one of the best ways to connect people and share our history and culture,” said Owens. “Artisans are some of the best storytellers and stewards of our culture.”
In some cases, said Owens, artisans are sharing traditions that span thousands of years, bringing history to life and allowing the viewer to interact, learn and find joy through the experience.
Plan your next family adventure around discovering Oklahoma’s Native public art.
Tahlequah, Under 3 hours east of OKC
The people, culture and traditions of the Cherokee Nation have helped shape northeast Oklahoma for generations. With a strong value for public art, thanks in part to the support of First Lady January Hoskin, the Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah is the perfect cultural destination for families to enjoy a day trip or stay for a week to take in all the area has
The Cherokee National History Museum, which offers free admission, provides both indoor and outdoor public art experiences. A two-story, multidimensional art installation called Turtle Island Migration in one of the stairwells gives all visitors, but especially kids, an understanding of the limitless capabilities of public art and the people who create it. The piece was created by a team of five Cherokee artists, Cherokee National Treasures Bill Glass, Jr., Dan Mink and Demos Glass and MaryBeth Timothy and David Chaudoin.
“You are enveloped and part of the installation — you’re not just looking at a framed photo but seeing a story illustrated in front of your eyes,” said Owens.
Located in the original Cherokee National Capitol building, the museum’s immersive, hands-on, multimedia exhibits take visitors from the past to the present, starting with the Cherokee origin story, transporting them through forced removal on the Trail of Tears via the voices of the Cherokee people who lived it and bringing them to the vitality of the Nation today. Visitors can also study the Cherokee syllabary and take lessons in authentic arts and crafts.
Nearby and slated to open in summer 2021, a Cherokee art park and cultural pathway will serve as both a public art destination in itself and a pedestrian-friendly walkway connecting a variety of attractions in the historic capital.
“We’ll bring the museum experience outside the walls into the public with outdoor, immersive art, statues, rotating displays and the opportunity for the public to participate with chalk art on metal walls,” said Owens. “We are looking forward to future programming like outdoor art experiences, festivals, storytellers, live music and small art markets.”
The park and pathway will be an ever-evolving project so families will see something new each time they visit.
Nearby: The Cherokee Nation owns and operates several museum sites in downtown Tahlequah, all of which can be accessed by the new art park and cultural pathway, including the Cherokee National Prison Museum and Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum as well as attractions such as the Spider Gallery and Cherokee Arts Center. In addition, opportunities to explore the outdoors include floating the Illinois River, fishing or boating on Lake Tenkiller or Lake Fort Gibson and hiking the JT Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve or Sparrowhawk Hiking Trails. Other cultural destinations just a short drive away include the John Ross Museum in Park Hill, Sequoyah’s Cabin Museum in Sallisaw and Saline Courthouse Museum in Rose.
Sulphur & Ada, 1.5 hours southeast of OKC
Vibrant murals in Sulphur and Ada, the heart of the Chickasaw Nation, will be of particular interest to young artists as the public works were created with the help of Chickasaw youth.
On the former Ada News building, the addition of The Child (or “Baby Yoda,” clad in a Native-style robe) by artist Brent Greenwood (Chickasaw-Ponca) brings attention to the larger mural crafted by 17 Chickasaw teen artists, which they completed as part of a class with the Chickasaw Arts Academy, under the guidance of Natasha Wagner (Chickasaw) and Yatika Starr Fields (Osage, Cherokee, Muscogee Creek).
In Sulphur, Greenwood and his son Me-Way-Seh Hunter Greenwood created a mural on the Mahota Textiles building, with inspiration from the designs of the pillows, blankets and purses created by the textiles business incorporated into Greenwood’s representation of the earth, sky and natural elements. The Mahota Textiles Mural is located at the corner of Muskogee Avenue and West 3rd Street in downtown Sulphur, adjacent to Greenwood’s newest mural 3&B featured on the north wall of the 3rd & Broadway boutique.
Also in Sulphur, the Chickasaw Cultural Center includes various sculptures on the grounds, including The Arrival by artist Mike Larsen (Chickasaw) commemorating the Chickasaws’ arrival to new territory after forced removal from their homeland. The Warrior, by Enoch Kelley Haney (Seminole), stands proudly over the grounds and represents the Chickasaw unconquered, unconquerable spirit.
Nearby: Plan a full day or extended stay in Chickasaw Country with a stop by the Chickasaw Visitor Center, where you can also view works of art and photography by First American artists, including a prominent wall sculpture by artist Paul Moore (Chickasaw). Chickasaw-Nation-owned Bedré Fine Chocolate in Davis offers melt-in-your-mouth chocolates, handmade confections and coffees. Watch the manufacturing process, sample some goodies and check out the playground out front and another The Warrior statue by Haney. Enjoy the natural beauty of the area with a hike through the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Editor’s note: At the time of publication, the Chickasaw Cultural Center has not yet reopened to the public. Visit chickasawculturalcenter.com for updates and ticket prices.
Durant, 2.5 hours southeast of OKC
Tvshka Homma, the Red Warrior by John Gooden, watches over the entry of the new Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant, scheduled to open in July 2021. The statue bears the face of Joseph Oklahombi, a Choctaw Code Talker from World War II, and was made in consultation with Sue Folsom and Ian Thompson of the Choctaw Nation to be archaeologically correct in every aspect, from the weaponry to the warrior’s tattoos.
The center has been nearly a decade in the making with the intent of preserving and perpetuating Choctaw culture and history. More than 40 Choctaw artisans from around the United States have been working to create a unique kind of art for the center: authentic clothing, tools and household items representing different periods in Choctaw history. Their art will combine with videos, interactive experiences and even food to tell the history of the Choctaw tribe from ancestral times (circa 1250) to current day in Oklahoma.
The main building will house two exhibit halls, an art gallery, auditorium and classrooms.
Kids will especially enjoy the Luksi (Turtle) Activity Center where they can explore traditional Choctaw houses, a mini forest and even a giant luksi. The Champuli Café will serve traditional Choctaw foods and the Hvshi Gift Store will offer authentic Choctaw-made items. The surrounding site will include a stickball field, living village and a traditional earthen mound based on Nvnih Waiya, the Mother Mound in the Choctaw homelands in Mississippi.
Nearby: While kids aren’t allowed in the casino itself, the majority of the Choctaw Casino & Resort in Durant is very family-friendly with an expansive, multi-level pool, complete with water slide, a full-size arcade with skee ball, air hockey and many other games, a movie theater, bowling alley and kid-friendly restaurants. Whether you’re a guest or just passing through, check out the sculpture in the lobby of a white bison atop a waterfall, brought to life every hour by a light and water show.
Editor’s note: Visit choctawculturalcenter.com for up-to-date information.
Close to Home OKC
Oklahoma Judicial Center and Oklahoma State Capitol
The Oklahoma Judicial Center, located southeast of the Oklahoma State Capitol, is a treasure trove of public art from the historic to the contemporary. The building is open to the public and free to visit, but guests must go through security.
Most legendary are a series of murals on the third floor, commissioned by Kiowa Six artists Monroe Tsatoke and Spencer Asah in 1934. The murals were completed five years after the building was opened in 1929 as the home of the Oklahoma Historical Society, which had formerly been housed in the Capitol basement. In 1961, the legislature named the building in honor of aviator Wiley Post, and when the Historical Society outgrew the building and moved to its new nearby location in 2005, plans were already in the works, thanks to Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Yvonne Kauger, to rename and repurpose the building as the Oklahoma Judicial Center.
Building on the foundation of these murals, which were restored during the building’s complete restoration in 2011, the Art in Public Places Committee for the Center’s Art Collection selected, commissioned and acquired pieces connected and relating to the history of Oklahoma, including paintings, sculptures, textiles and photographs. A cornerstone painting commissioned by Mike Wimmer called Kiowa Six pays special homage to the sixth female artist, Lois Bougetah Smoky, oftentimes forgotten in history in the shadow of her five male counterparts.
Outdoors, Vietnam Veteran is an eight-foot bronze statue of a soldier wearing a 1960s combat uniform, a tribute to the 54,000 Oklahomans who served in the Vietnam War. Artists Jay O’Meilia and sculptor Bill Sowell (Pawhuska) used an 18-year-old of Osage descent as a model for the monument and were selected by a panel of six Vietnam veterans to design the bronze and granite monument following a statewide competition in 1984. The statue is part of the Oklahoma Veterans Memorial, and the plaza also includes four bas-relief bronze sculptures (depicting battles of WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam), granite panels with the names of Oklahomans who were killed in action in all wars and an eternal flame.
Nearby: Across the street at the Oklahoma State Capitol, view the sculpture As Long As the Waters Flow by Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache). After viewing the maquette of Circle of Life sculpture by Seminole Nation Chief Enoch Kelly Haney at the Judicial Center, travel up Lincoln Boulevard to compare it to the full-size piece outside the Oklahoma Banking Department (2900 N Lincoln Blvd), plus admire his sculpture of The Guardian atop the Capitol dome. Haney was the first full-blood Native to serve in the Oklahoma legislature and has earned the title Master Artist of the Five Civilized Tribes.
Fun fact: The cornerstone for the Oklahoma Judicial Center was laid during a ceremony on Statehood Day, Nov. 16, 1929. Items placed inside include the Oklahoma Constitution, the book The Birth of Law and texts printed in Cherokee, Muscogee-Creek and Choctaw, as well as a box of typeface in the Cherokee syllabary invented by Sequoyah.
More public Native art:
• Honoring Veterans: Pawhuska. The Osage Veterans Memorial opened in 2018 to honor and remember Osage veterans and their families. In addition to the names of Osage veterans inscribed in granite, the memorial includes a 22-foot sculpture of an eagle feather, the concept and design by members of the original Osage Veterans Memorial Commission. Jarica Walsh, director of art in public places for the Oklahoma Arts Council, notes that Native veterans memorials are common because Native people have such a high service rate. Nearby Osage Nation Museum is the oldest tribal museum in America.
• Modern Moccasins: Tulsa. Located at 533 S Peoria in Tulsa, the mural Connected Pathways by artist Nani Chacon (Diné, Chicana) and assisted by Lynette Haozous (Chiricahua Apache [San Carlos Apache Tribe], Diné, Taos Pueblo) features brightly colored and intricately detailed moccasins of modern-day Indigenous Oklahoma women. The work is part of the Indigenous Mural Series administered by Yatika Starr Fields (Osage, Cherokee, Muscogee Creek), who notes the significance of the portrayal of celebration and dance, traditions that were put on hold for many during the pandemic.
• Hidden Gem: Colony. The childhood home of Justice Kauger, Colony is 90 minutes west of OKC, about 20 minutes south of Weatherford. Artist and university professor Eric Tippeconnic (Comanche) painted murals The Hunt and The Horse Capture on the Jamboree Building, as well as Grand Entry on the Kauger Building. The vibrant colors in Tippeconnic’s works showcase both appreciation for his Comanche ancestors and pride in the modern-day culture. The artist’s mural Chairman of the Board can also be enjoyed closer to home at Exhibit C in Bricktown.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Jarica Walsh, director of art in public places for the Oklahoma Arts Council, for her assistance with this article.