Dustin Mater (b. 1979; Ada, Oklahoma) has been told traumatic events can trigger a child’s earliest memories, “that moment when you kind of come online,” in his words. The Chickasaw artist’s recall goes back to when he was barely 2-years old.
Mater’s parents had domestic problems stemming from his father’s time in Vietnam.
“He was one of those wounded fellas (who) didn’t make it out of the ‘60s well… a broken man,” Mater said. “That violence at home, I think something in that era kind of triggered something.”
Mater’s father can be forgiven for his difficult transition back to civilian life in America. His mother thought serving in the military would benefit the youngster, so she signed him up early. At 14. It was only once he arrived in Vietnam and saw the carnage that he revealed his actual age.
Mater’s childhood, however, wasn’t defined only by trauma. If included nurturing and love as well.
“What really triggered (my earliest memories) was the sincere praise I got from my mother at two,” Mater recalls. “I was drawing a train and an engineer, and I just remember it with such vivid detail.”
Ironically, Mater’s future career in art would additionally be enabled by poor vision. He didn’t have depth perception growing up. He was cross-eyed. Multiple eye surgeries as a little kid were unable to correct the sight impairment. That meant he couldn’t play sports.
An ‘80s childhood featuring bad eyesight in rural Oklahoma, alternately freezing cold and scorching hot curtailing outdoor activities, left him without much to do. His mom encouraged him to read and at 5- and 6-years-old he discovered comic books.
“I started reading Batman comics and, you know, it’s another one of those moments where trauma induces other things,” Mater said.
Mater wouldn’t mature into a millionaire, playboy, vigilante crime fighter, but losing a father resonated with him.
“My father, after he abandoned us, my grandfather passed around the same time; the story of Batman and his narrative was one I could see myself in just like I could see myself in Luke Skywalker,” Mater said, another hero who “lost” his father in childhood. “I found my North Stars, so to speak, in Luke Skywalker and Batman and the (King Arthur) stories.”
At this trying time, Mater also was supported by a counselor who helped him channel his art into a form of therapy.
There was another powerful force in his life keeping the child headed in the right direction when it would have been easy to stray as countless others had.
“I had the benefit of having a grandmother who lived to be between 107 or 114. She was an original enrollee on the Dawes Rolls and her father walked the Trail (of Tears) in 1850,” Mater explains. “She passed away in 1998 and I was one of her last favorite grandchildren and she shared all these (Chickasaw) stories and planted the seeds that have taken root.”
Thankfully, unlike most kids, Mater was interested in his grandmother’s stories. Bad eyes, bad weather, not many other kids to pal around with, dad gone, mom working – grandma filled the void.
“I’d wait for my mom to get off work and I’d have a couple of hours and hang out with grandma and help her and I wanted to learn more about my grandfather and learn about more about the culture,” Mater said.
Here, Mater’s figurative vision proved remarkable, recognition of his grandmother as an oracle, “Coming from a place of earnestness and not knowing my ass from a hole on the ground, just wanting to learn.”
His grandmother would tell him stories, ancient Chickasaw stories like the emergence of the ivory-billed woodpecker.
“When the creator flooded the world and made everything – (made) the water rise – the woodpecker flew high above the waters and flew so high that its feathers got singed; that’s why the top of its feathers are all black,” Mater shares. “When the waters subsided, the creator was so pleased with (the ivory-billed woodpecker’s) tenacity and willpower that it made it the sentry and protector of the Chickasaw and other Southeastern tribes.”
Invoking the spirit and willpower of the bird, warriors would wear red and black combinations on their heads and incorporate its markings on their tomahawks and war clubs. Representations of the bird remain prominent in Chickasaw Country despite its tragic extinction in the late 20th century due to white settler encroachment on, and destruction of, its habitat.
Ornithologists referred to the ivory-billed, the largest of North America’s woodpeckers, as the “Lord God Bird.” The culture, society and economy those white ornithologists came from killed God.
While grandma’s stories piqued Mater’s curiosity, they never completely satisfied him about his background.
“I was very envious of some of our friends who were Lakota and some friends who were Seminole and some that were Cherokee,” he said. “Their cultures are so alive and vivid, it’s not separate from them, it’s part of their everyday lives to live it and breathe it, and at the time growing up here, it wasn’t cool being Chickasaw.”
Grandma’s stories, comic books and an aptitude for drawing are the foundation of Mater’s artwork. Fine art, too
Numerous Native American artists trace their earliest interest in two-dimensional art back to comic books. Most Indigenous people didn’t grow up with convenient access to museums or art galleries. They didn’t often have paintings at home or art class at school.
Comic books, on the other hand, were easily accessible at convenience stores and could be bought cheap. The graphics and stories resonated.
Atypically, Mater did have an early introduction to fine art along with graphic arts and cultural history.
“My mom would take me to college with her when she was finishing school; I would go to her art class and the art teacher made an example out of me to the rest of her class, and he said, ‘Why can he do exactly what I’m telling you all to do while the rest of you are screwing up?’” Mater remembers. “That was another pat on the back as far as the art thing.”
He was 7- or 8-years-old at the time.
“I still have my first art book my mother gave me (around the same time) and it’s a Georgia O’Keeffe art book,” Mater said. “I’ve been tremendously focused, and I knew I wanted to be an artist – and I’ve had a bunch of jobs to confirm that I suck at everything else.”
In addition to his art practice, Mater works for the Chickasaw Nation as a cultural researcher and graphic designer. He moved back to Ada in 2011 after leaving home following high school for college in Los Angeles where he studied art and design.
Not surprisingly, considering the influence of his mother and grandmother, much of Mater’s work today focuses on portraits of Native American women.
“When I’d go into galleries and go into museums, I’d see these wonderful paintings of people throughout history, but I never saw women that looked like my mother. I never saw women that looked like my grandmothers or aunties,” Mater said. “I’m just in awe when I see these women and the strength that they hold; it’s not just on a surface level. In a lot of classic Muskogean culture, the men in a lot of ways are servants to the feminine and this is my own contribution to that.”