Cherokee artist Mary Beth Nelson has several ways to share her culture.
There’s her art, of course — wildlife paintings that seem to glow with different hues; vivid, bright-colored paintings filled with Native American symbols.
“I do a lot of Native American art and a lot of wildlife art,” Nelson said. “Even when I do wildlife, I try to include Native American imagery in it. When I tell people about it, it gives me a chance to talk about the culture.”
For example, she said, many people think images in her art look contemporary, but they actually are ancient symbols from southeastern tribes.
Nelson also uses her job at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum gift shop as a way to share. “I have found, working here at the museum, there are so many people who have no idea about our history or our heritage,” she said. “It gives me a chance to tell them.”
Nelson, 44, has worked at the gift shop off and on for about five years. After living two years out of state, she moved back to Muskogee in July.
A native of Pryor Creek, Nelson grew up in different parts of the country but had one driving interest.
“I’ve always drawn all my life,” she said. “But I got serious when I turned 30, 14 years ago.”
She said her first art influence was painter/illustrator Norman Rockwell:
“I remember as a kid, we had Norman Rockwell prints and calendars at our house. All his paintings told a story.”
Nelson also recalled visiting a Renaissance art exhibit at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa while in elementary school.
“I wanted to just stare at each painting,” she said. “I was amazed, so amazed at their depth. They all seemed to glow.”
Meet Mary Beth Nelson
HOMETOWN: Pryor Creek.
CAREER: Gift shop manager at Five Civilized Tribes Museum; artist.
EDUCATION: Guthrie High School, 1987.
FAMILY: Two sons, Brodey and Wesley.
RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION: Baptist.
HOBBIES: “I love being outside, whether working in my flower bed or out exploring. I love my birds. I always have to have some kind of feeder for them.”
One buddy sure to be by Mary Beth Nelson’s side is Mr. Beanz, a toy Yorkshire terrier. Nelson said he likes to go with her to art shows.
“He’s my travel buddy, my art show buddy, and my baby,” she said. “And he’s more popular than me. At the art shows all the artists know him. He gets a short haircut with a Mohawk and I usually dye the Mohawk with different colors and he has Cherokee ribbon shirts.”
Some artist friends have even made accessories for the pup, she said.
Nelson got Mr. Beanz about four years ago, she said.
“Mary (Robinson) and I had been looking for a dog, and his picture was in the paper,” she said. “A teacher in Wagoner was moving and didn’t have time for him. Yorkies need so much attention. Mr. Beanz wants to play. He wants to do anything you’re doing.”
Nelson recalled meeting the teacher and the Yorkie pup in Wagoner.
“He was wild and running all over the place,” she said. “But when I got him to me, he was just licking me.”
The dog has grown into his new setting quite well, she said.
According to Nelson, Mr. Beanz is a good traveler:
“He has his own seat, his throne, on the center console in my truck. He sits there and watches everything. He tells me when we need to stop. He also goes camping with me. We went to the Chickasaw Art Show last year, and he was real good.”
He even has a Facebook page, Nelson said. “Every time I’d go on Facebook, people would ask how he was doing.”
A low point
to rise above
A house fire in winter 2009 almost dashed Nelson’s dream.
“We lived three miles from Greenleaf State Park, and it was beautiful,” she said. “I had my studio all set up. I was doing prints and going to different galleries and shops. I could pretty much do it full time.”
Nelson’s home and studio were destroyed by fire Jan. 28, 2009. She said she had been away, picking up her son in Sapulpa when she heard her house was on fire. She said the house was burned to the ground by the time they got there.
A newspaper story at the time said she lost about 14 original works and all her prints.
“I lost not only my computers, I lost my show equipment. I lost my supplies. I lost everything,” she said. “I never was able to get back to that point. I had to go back to work and, like everyone else, I’m living paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes I could do shows and sometimes I can’t.”
People from Nelson’s church, family and artist friends helped support her after the fire.
“I did have people donate brushes, paint and canvases,” she said. “But the show equipment, I still don’t have. I’m just now getting space set up for a studio. I have a rent house.”
After the fire, Nelson went to live at the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico.
“It was quite an experience to learn about another culture, to be accepted into their culture,” she said. “They accepted me and my family and we participated in their traditional activities.”
Nelson returned to Muskogee last year.
Although she put many art shows on hold since the fire, Nelson did go to a prestigious art show last November — at the Grand Palais in Paris.
“I went with an art group of 14 Native Americans from the U.S.A., Canada,” Nelson said. “The man heading the Native American art group was a friend of mine and he told me to put an entry in for it. It was a juried show, and I was one of the people juried in.”
She said she had to raise the money to send her work and to go to the show, “Salon du Dessin et de la Peinture à L'eau,” which ran from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2.
“Then I got a sponsor at the last minute, then flew to Dallas to get my passport,” she said. “Being in the show was very humbling. I had no clue it was so huge.”
The show was made up of many delegations, or “salons,” representing Korea, China and other countries.
“They were from all over the world,” she said. “We could take a large piece and a small piece. And I sold the small piece to a lady from Germany.”
The eight-day trip was the first time Nelson had been out of the country. She recalled seeing the Notre Dame cathedral.
“I was thrilled to have had the chance to go,” she said.
HOW DID YOU BECOME AN OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE?
“My parents lived here. I was offered a job. I missed home.”
WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT MUSKOGEE?
“I love it in the spring with all the azaleas in the park. And it’s close to my roots.”
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING IN MUSKOGEE?
Gift shop manager at Five Civilized Tribes Museum; artist.
WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?
“I love to travel, work in the flower beds, watch movies.”
WHAT OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE DO YOU ADMIRE?
Five Civilized Tribes Museum director Mary Robinson. “She works really hard and puts up with a lot of prejudice and criticism. She handles it really well. She’s done a lot for artists.”
WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE THING TO HAPPEN TO YOU IN MUSKOGEE?
“Coming to work here at the museum. I had shown here at shows, but I never imagined working here and meeting so many different people here. I’m a very social person. I get to share history with them.”
HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP MUSKOGEE IN 25 WORDS OR LESS?
“Pretty quiet, laid back, nice parks, a lot of places to eat.”