“I want people to know Native Americans are still here,” says Damon Neal, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation.
Neal, whose mother is Apache and whose father is of Cherokee, Wichita, Caddo and Delaware descent, will turn 41 on Friday. He spends about 25 percent of his time making art for Midnite Snow Creations, he says, but his main job is caring for his parents.
“This is how I’m raised,” he says. “This is how I’m brought up. Family, elders comes first.”
Growing up, Neal attended W.E. Greiner Middle School, where he learned about art materials and techniques. From there, he went to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where he says he found his foundation and was also friends with Grammy Award-winning artist Norah Jones. Later, at the Art Institute of Dallas, Neal excelled as an illustrator.
“Almost my last semester, my mom got sick,” he says, explaining how he’d left school reasoning that he could always go back “next year.” That was about 20 years ago. Neal says he’d “make the same decision [now] because my family comes first.”
The importance of family and heritage is displayed in Neal’s artwork, which he says has won first- and second-place ribbons at the State Fair of Texas and has been seen by thousands of people.
“Our traditions are pretty much very spiritual in nature,” he says. “In general, in Native American culture, the circle is a very sacred symbol. Everything goes in a cycle like the seasons, the days.”
Along with the sacred circle of life, Neal also talked about colors. He uses a variety of mediums and colors in his creations, but he works mainly with pen and ink. So black, white and gray are mainstays.
Neal had his first art booth at UT-Arlington’s Native American Student Association Powwow while he was still in high school, he says. At one event, he airbrushed an eagle onto a shawl.
“It was a very unique gift,” he says. “They used it as a giveaway gift to someone. So I don’t know who has that shawl right now.”
Recently, Neal returned to UTA for a Native American Heritage celebration where he had a booth next to his mother, Irene, who fuses Native American colors and designs into her handiwork. Neal says his mother, 71, has been diagnosed with an illness that has affected her hands, so she uses crochet as therapy to maintain agility and strength.
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Neal also uses art as therapy, he says, and encourages those who may be experiencing anxiety or depression to express themselves creatively through art, music, dance and theater.
As a child, Neal watched his mother draw cartoons of animals like rabbits and deer, he says.
”I thought that was cool to create something out of nothing,” he says. “I wanted to do that.
“Over the years, I started developing an art style. But I still haven’t achieved that level of her artistic ability. To me, I still have a long way to go.”