<--retour / back DANA TIGER  

Triumph Over Tragedy
By Russ Tall Chief
Dana Tiger, an award winning, nationally acclaimed Muscogee Creek/Seminole/Cherokee painter, recalls her recent exhibitions in Paris as if the experience were a dream: "Being with the other Native artists there in Paris as the first Native artists to ever be invited to the Grand Palais exhibition was an historic step that we took, for us and for other Native artists to carry on after us.  It was the trip of a lifetime." This past November, Dana's work was exhibited in Paris at Orenda Gallery (www.orenda-art.com), privately-owned by Nicolas and Joëlle Rostkowski, as well as at the immensely majestic Grand Palais during the prestigious "Art en Capital" (www.artencapital.fr) exhibition, which featured works by more than 2,000 artists from around the world.  The strength and determination of Native American women warriors, which Dana powerfully depicts in her work, was palpable for more than 40,000 visitors who attended the exhibitions in Paris.  

Dana's vast artistic range spans from abstract geometrical work to realistic portraiture and depictions of community gatherings.  Her artistic virtuosity was naturally inherited as the eldest daughter of the prolific Creek/Seminole artist Jerome Tiger (1941-1967).  Dana was only five when her 26-year-old father was killed by an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound.  However, his artistic legacy endured, both in his immense body of work, which he created in just a few short years of painting, as well as in the gifted hands of his children, Dana, Chris, and Lisa, as well as Jerome's brother, Johnny Tiger, Jr., who persevered after the untimely, tragic loss of the family patriarch.  "Being surrounded by daddy's art was how we knew him," Dana says.  "In a way, it made me not want to be an artist because he was one of the best in the world.  I thought there was no way for me to live up to his legacy.  But daddy spoke to me through his painting and encouraged me to paint, and I never stopped."
Today, Dana's paintings hang in prominent public and private collections around the world.  In 2001, Dana was inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame.  And, in 2002, Dana founded the non-profit "Legacy Cultural Learning Community," dedicated to nurturing Native youth through the celebration and sharing of tribal languages and culture through the arts (www.legacycultural.org). Dana and her husband, Donnie Blair, also run the Tiger Art Gallery in Muskogee, Oklahoma (www.tigerartgallery.com).  The gallery features work by three generations of Tiger family artists, including work by Dana's two children, Christie and Lisan, who have been demonstrating innate artistic prowess since before they could talk.  However, despite Dana's artistic success and the exhilarating signs of the emergence of a new generation of Tiger artists, the Tiger family history has been shrouded by tragedy likened to the "curse" believed to be inflicted upon the family of former United States President, John F. Kennedy (1917-1963).  I am not alone in considering the Tiger family "Native Art Royalty," therefore, the Kennedy comparison is common in the Native art world.
Jerome's death added irony to tragedy since Jerome was well-known as an expert marksman.  Dana recalls from family tales when Jerome shot a cigarette out of a young woman's mouth standing no less than 50 paces away.  However, Jerome's excellent marksmanship was deeply overshadowed by the fact that a gun was to blame for his death.  Peggy Tiger, Jerome's widow, published The Life and Art of Jerome Tiger (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980) and established The Jerome Tiger Art Company to sell prints of her late husband's art. "Mom wanted to let the world know his genius," Dana says. "But, in order for anybody to take the business seriously, she and her cousin, Molly Ann Babcock, had to pretend for years that they were men," Dana says. 
All of the Tigers helped with the business over the years in different ways, including Dana's younger sister, Lisa, and their brother, Chris, both of which were also trained boxers and coaches.  Chris was a not only a budding young boxer, he was also inspired by Dana and his late father to develop his artistic urge.  "We had always fought, as brothers and sisters do," Dana recalls, "but we started to get closer through art."  Known for his generosity and sensitivity, when a man who Chris barely knew asked him for a ride, Chris willingly obliged.  Compounding the ironic tragedy of Jerome's death, Chris was shot that night in 1990 in an alcohol-fueled execution, considered to be an act of vengeance against Chris for a long-held grudge.  The Tulsa Indian Art Festival in 1990 was Chris and Dana's last art show in which the exhibited together. 
"After Chris was killed, I painted a piece called "Watching over Us" in honor of Chris," Dana says.  "In the painting, Lisa and I are on the ground surrounded by a beautiful landscape with Chris in the clouds looking down on us.  The following year, I donated the painting to the festival's auction, with proceeds from the sale of the piece benefitting a scholarship for up-and-coming artists."  Chris's painting, "Warrior's Image," a mystical painting on which he wrote the words: "A man travelling through time back to his destiny" still hangs at the Tiger Art Gallery.  His words are also engraved on his tombstone. 
Two years after Chris's death, Lisa contracted HIV after her first intimate encounter with a boyfriend.  Lisa refused the medicine the doctors prescribed to her and others infected with the virus, including the person who infected her.  Then, one by one, all of the people Lisa's doctors were treating with the medicine died.  "Lisa saved her own life," Dana says.  Twenty years later, Lisa remains one of the most highly-acclaimed public educators in the world for HIV/AIDS awareness.
Although Dana had never planned to have children, after the loss of Chris, followed by Lisa's HIV (and later AIDS) diagnosis, Dana and her husband, Donnie, decided to have children in honor of her siblings.  Their daughter, Christie was born in 1993, and their son, Lisan, was born in 1995.  The children provided much-needed happiness for the family.  Lisa travelled extensively on a speakers' bureau with Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010), the iconic first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation, along with the renowned author and activist Gloria Steinem, and Amy Richards, Steinem's protégé.  Dana's art career was flourishing and life seemed to be looking up for the family.  Then Dana began to suffer symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, which progressed to the point that "people began asking if I had had a stroke or a car wreck," Dana says.  "Wilma encouraged me to go to doctor, which is when I was formally diagnosed with the disease."
Parkinson's Disease has unquestionably impact Dana's art.  However, Dana has learned to incorporate a lighter and looser touch in her work in order to allow for her brush strokes to accommodate her loss of muscle control associated with the disease.  "I still have the ability to paint, but it is a different process for me now," Dana explains.  "My art is not planned as much anymore; I have to just go with what my body does, which is often unpredictable.  But I still have the same desire to paint, if not more desire now, after exhibiting in Paris under the same roof as Picasso, Renoir, and Matisse."
In yet another blow to the Tigers, Lisa was diagnosed with Parkinson's a short time after Dana.  The family decided to turn to traditional medicine to combat the tragedy their family, like the Kennedys, seemed to perpetually suffer.  The medicine appears to be working—much to the family's deserved good fortune.  Against formidable odds, Lisa was able to conceive and give birth to a healthy baby girl, Crickett, who was protected from Lisa's HIV during pregnancy and birth through vigilant medical care.  In Dana's children, Christie and Lisan, it appears that the next generation of the Tiger artists may already be asserting their respective roars.  Christie was recently awarded a talent scholarship to attend the Santa Fe University of Art and Design where she begins in the fall.  As a sophomore in high school, Lisan has already won numerous awards as well, working primarily in sculpture.  The Tigers currently are preparing for upcoming art festivals, including the Red Earth Festival in June, the Santa Fe Art Market in August, and a return trip to Paris this November for an exhibition at Orenda Gallery, which will be devoted to art by all three generations of Tiger artists.  For more information, visit www.tigerartgallery.com