Johnnie Diacon perseveres to become leading contemporary Native American artist

Time.

Seven years.

Ten minutes.

Fourteen years.

Life is both short and long.

A life can be both short and long.

For Mvskoke (Muscogee) artist Johnnie Diacon (b. Okemah, OK; 1963), extraordinary markers of time have shaped his life and career.

Seven years between high school and attending Bacone College.

Ten minutes of life for his daughter Annabelle in 2000.

Fourteen years unable to pick up a brush following that death and another, 19-year-old daughter Chrissa.

Persevering on the way to experiencing his greatest career successes in recent years, paintings included in the smash TV hit “Reservation Dogs,” work to be seen by additional millions in an upcoming exhibition at the world’s busiest airport.

Beginnings

Johnnie Diacon (Mvskoke), Pose Puca (Grandma Grandpa), 2022. Watercolor on paper, 7x10 inches.
Johnnie Diacon (Mvskoke), Pose Puca (Grandma Grandpa), 2022. Watercolor on paper, 7×10 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Johnnie Diacon has needed to be resilient almost from the day he was born. His mother died when he was a baby. What could rightly be seen as the biggest “break” in his life came with his adoption by a loving, supportive, Indigenous family. That is not always the case for Native kids.

The artist couldn’t see clearly for the first 10 years of his life. It wasn’t until the fourth grade that his parents suspected something was wrong with his vision and took him to an optometrist. With the help of glasses, he perceived color and sharp detail for the first time.

In an almost unbelievable coincidence, that optometrist was a collector of Native American art. Among the first things Diacon saw with his “new” eyes were Native American paintings on the office walls. As if placed there by the creator, Diacon describes the moment as “spiritual.”

He always loved art. Growing up isolated in Arkansas, raised as an only child, not into sports, he had access to art materials so he drew. He drew in the “flat” style of Native American art which attracted him and was prevalent in the books and magazines he had access to in the late 60s and 70s.

He wanted to be an animator, but his high school guidance counselor didn’t see a future for him in college. In an experience replicated countless times for Native Americans, a tragedy in its own right, the people entrusted to advise Diacon about his future steered him toward the army, not university.

He was 16.

He was also Native. Natives go into the military. They do not go on to higher education. Such was the prevailing opinion.

America’s abuses of its Indigenous population are multifaceted. This, surely, is an example.

Along with poor vision, Diacon also had bad hearing. He failed his physical. Military service was out.

He instead got a job in a hospital after graduating high school, helped out with his adopted dad’s sign-making company and kept drawing, kept making art. Eventually, he started entering shows.

“I never won a prize, but I never took anything home – it sold,” Diacon remembers of those early days in his career. He thought to himself, “I’m doing something right if people are wanting to buy this.”

Sales, of course, being the ultimate judge of an artist’s ability when producing for the market.

This, naturally, encouraged him. He kept at it. He met other artists.

When visiting Dana Tiger (Muscogee/Seminole/Cherokee), a friend and fellow artist in Muscogee, OK, he finally laid eyes on the Bacone College he’d heard so many of artists talking about.

“On a whim one day, I dropped in there and said, ‘I’d like to go to school here.’ They said, ‘come on in,’” Diacon said with a smile. “The admissions officer gave me all this information on the school, all this paperwork, so I went home that evening and told mom and dad I’m going to go to college. They were excited.”

His application was accepted and he was off to college, seven years following his high school graduation.

Bacone College has a stellar, 100-year reputation for educating Native Americans. Particularly in the arts. Diacon studied the flat style under master artist Ruthe Blalock Jones (Delaware, Shawnee, Peoria).

His education wouldn’t end there. Diacon went on to study at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, taking his place in the greatest contemporary art lineage for Indigenous people anywhere in the world.

Life Interrupted

Johnnie Diacon (Mvskoke), Around the Fire, 2022. Oil on canvas, 18x14 inches.
Johnnie Diacon (Mvskoke), Around the Fire, 2022. Oil on canvas, 18×14 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Diacon was showing work at the prestigious Eiteljorg Indian Art Market in Indianapolis in 2000. His wife was six months pregnant and doctors assured the couple it was safe for her to make the roughly 700 mile trip by car from Oklahoma.

“It was just a weekend market and she started having pains,” Diacon recalls. A call to the doctor was met with assurances there was nothing to worry about, but “(the pain) just kept getting worse and worse.”

Back home on Monday, their doctor then advised going to the emergency room where Diacon’s wife was diagnosed with an incompetent cervix. There’s a patriarchal term if ever there was one.

“The baby slid down, set off all the signals that she was going into labor, so what she was actually feeling were labor paints,” Diacon said. “The baby slid down too far, there was nothing they could do to stop. They said, ‘you’re going to have this baby sometime tonight,’ a few hours, whatever. (The doctor) said since you’re only six months along, there’s a chance she won’t make it because a lot of her organs haven’t formed yet, lungs are the last thing to form, she’ll probably be blind and have a lot of health problems if she lives.”

Annabelle Diacon lived about 10 minutes.

“I thought if I hadn’t dragged us to Indianapolis for the show this wouldn’t have happened. It’s all my fault. I should have just stayed home. I should have waited till next year. Why did I have to… it was my first year, I was just so excited about going,” Diacon said. “I thought, ‘I did this.’ I felt so bad about that and guilty that I just quit painting. I couldn’t paint. It just couldn’t paint. All that energy and enthusiasm and love of that paint went away. It just crushed me.”

The urge came back in 2008. He took out some canvas and paints and started playing around.

“Within a day or so after that I found out that my 19-year-old daughter had got into a fight with her boyfriend,” Diacon remembers.

She hung herself as a result.

“I found that out and I thought, ‘man, every time I pick up a paint brush, I lose a child,’” Diacon said. “I’m doing something wrong with my life. Maybe I’m not taking this gift or facing this responsibility I’ve got with this art – I’m doing something wrong.”

He stopped again.

It wouldn’t be until one day in 2014 when, recognizing signs telling him to return to his artwork, that Diacon began painting again. On that day, he was attending an event in Tulsa where he continues to live. There, the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma had eagles on view from its Grey Snow Eagle House rehabilitation program.

Diacon recognized the eagles as injured, but still eagles.

He was injured too, but still an artist.

He also bumped into another friend and fellow artist that day, Shan Goshorn (1957-2018; Eastern Band Cherokee). Diacon always recognized Goshorn’s appearance in his life as meaningful, intentional.

After 14 years, he picked up his artmaking right where he left off.

The family tragedies Diacon has experienced don’t work their way into his artwork. He’s worked through that pain in other ways.

View from the Top

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

Life is good now for Diacon. His career has never been better.

A Buffalo mural of his appeared in the background of the season three trailer for “Reservation Dogs.” He had artwork in seasons one and two as well.

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee) chose his (Everybody Dance) Green Corn Suite as the cover jacket art for her book “An American Sunrise.”

In fall of 2023, an exhibition at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport by Native Americans titled “This Land Calls Us Home” will feature his work.

Diacone had the opportunity in 2022 to visit Mvskoke homelands in Alabama and Georgia. He did live paintings at both locations.

“It was really something to be able to create art in our ancestral homelands,” Diacon said. “Living here in Oklahoma, you’re born an exile from your homelands. To go back and get to do what I do in the land where my relatives and ancestors used to do their art was quite an experience.”

Johnnie Diacon is represented by WYLD Gallery in Austin, TX and online where his work is available for purchase.

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