For SLC graphic designer, a life spent searching for home and helping others

by CHRIS MUMFORD

Perched on the edge of a mesa overlooking Albuquerque, N.M., surrounded by a desert calm interrupted only by the occasional breeze, is where you’ll find Cal Nez with his laptop, sending email, completing the mundane clerical tasks associated with his work as a graphic designer.

Nez, speaking to a reporting class at the University of Utah, shifts his recollection from the sweeping vistas of New Mexico to the dreary confines of the boarding school where he was, by his reckoning, held as a prisoner for six of his formative childhood years. He remembers ranks of children, standing at strict attention like soldiers, sometimes for hours. Mincing no words, Nez refers to the experience as one of the biggest demons in his past.

“It took away the beauty of being a child—the beauty, the peace of it,” he says.

Nez, who was born in the Navajo Nation, relates his life story in a series of evocative, symbol-laden snapshots like these—some real, some imagined, others a mixture of the two. Beneath each image, the fight to define a geographic and spiritual home simmers, informing Nez’s dual roles as artist and founder of the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce.

The impetus behind much of his work, Nez says, is an effort to reassert the presence of Native American people.

“We have a right to fulfill our space as human beings here on earth,” he says. “We are not history; we are not what you see in movies. Our drums, our songs are still going on.”           

Following boarding school, Nez was uprooted once more, this time landing in Salt Lake City, where he enrolled as a sophomore at South High School. Here, he invokes the mental picture of a long school building corridor, his grandmother silhouetted against the light spilling through the door at the end, never turning back.

Nor would he turn back, racking up a dizzying number of achievements and accolades by graduation, including a Sterling Scholarship, a position as editor of the school newspaper, a spot on the wrestling team and student-of-the-year honors.

“I knew I was supposed to go to South High School,” he says, emphasizing the sense of providence he felt in making the wrenching move away from his grandmother and the Navajo Nation. His voice soft, he gazes above the class and, as if speaking to her in person, recalls promising his grandmother that he “won’t ever cry,” and that he was “going to make it.”   

But, even as he celebrates the 20th anniversary of Cal Nez Design, his Salt Lake City–based graphic design company, the 50–year–old father of three still muses over what life would have been like had he been able to stay with his grandparents on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. 

The tension between these two versions of home is evident in much of his work. Using a diverse range of media, including oil paint, pencil and airbrush, he has produced art and designs for everyone from Governor Michael Leavitt, to the Navajo Nation, to the Utah Museum of Natural History. They are works that dot the spectrum of his identity, which stretches between his life in Utah and his roots in the Navajo Nation.

In April, Nez, in a drive to provide support for fellow Native American business owners, founded the Native American Chamber of Commerce. The organization, he says, is designed to unite Native American voices, bring increased awareness to Native American issues and for lobbying purposes.

He further hopes to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship in the younger generations of Native Americans.

“[There is] nothing you can do about the past,” he says, his voice low but clear, “Read about it, study it. But there’s the future…future. That’s where I think the answer lies.”

Abel Saiz, owner of Saiz Construction, is a member of the chamber and an acquaintance of Nez. He speaks of the organization as a support network for Native American business owners who are often discriminated against.

“We’re not called the invisible people for nothing,” Saiz says, adding that he wishes an organization like the chamber had been around when he created his construction company 22 years ago.

Though Nez acknowledges that many challenges remain in his life, he has found some measure of peace on questions of his identity and his true home.

“I’m beginning to find home is here,” he says, pointing to his heart. “And it doesn’t matter where I’m at.”