Keeping art alive through graphic design

by AARON K. SCHWENDIMAN

A black hat and mirrored aviator sunglasses stares from the page. A Navajo person looks onto an audience cheering for the participants in a rodeo while a carnival goes on in the background. In the reflection is a community joining together for its nations fair.

“I wanted every viewer to ‘become’ a Navajo for a split second and to look through the eyes of a Navajo person,” said Cal Nez, a Navajo-born graphic designer about one of his first works.

In 1989, former Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter McDonald hired Nez to create a poster for the annual Navajo Nation Fair. This is still the most meaningful and powerful piece for Nez.

Staying true to his artistic roots is what has made Nez so successful in the graphic design field. As different forms of art progress, Nez has brought his graphic design business back to the basics and kept the integrity of art alive.  

Nez owns a graphic design firm in Salt Lake City that is presently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Nez has always been an artist at heart and the consistency in providing quality pieces of art for clients has stayed true throughout the years.

Not only is Nez an artist, with his job as the president of the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce he gives a voice to the local Navajo owned businesses. 

Chamber board member Rosemary Giles has known Nez for only a couple months, but is very surprised at how many people he knows in the community.

“That’s what really surprised me, is that when you mention his name in the [Salt Lake] valley, everybody knows him,” Giles said in a phone interview.

Nez was born for the Tanaszanii Clan from Tocito, N.M. He was given to his grandparents, Bitonie and Mary B. Nez, to raise him from infancy. 

At a young age Nez was forced to attend the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School in Sanostee, N.M., where he first learned to speak English.

Even though boarding school was a dark chapter in Nez’s life, it was at that school where he ventured into the world of art. He recalled a picture he created depicting Abraham Lincoln chopping a piece of wood as one of his earliest works. From that experience Nez said that he has always been able to duplicate real life on surfaces.

After boarding school Nez made a conscience decision to move to Utah where he still resides today. Though Nez wanted to stay in New Mexico with his grandparents he knew there was nothing left for him in his community.

“I’m going to make it,” Nez said to his grandmother before for Salt Lake City. And that’s exactly what he did.

Nez attended South High school and graduated as one of the top students in his class and earned a Sterling Scholar award.

Nez worked for several graphic design firms before deciding to take on clients by himself. He was not receiving the credit he deserved for many of his works. So he quit his job and gathered a portfolio of his works together. He drove to New Mexico to see former Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald and was soon hired to do the Navajo Nation Fair poster. Nez has done projects for many clients during the twenty plus years he has been in business and still has the focus and drive he did when he first started.

Abel Saiz, a good friend and vice president of the Chamber described Cal’s artwork in a phone interview as being very “professional.” With his drive and determination he is always focused on keeping his work professional and unique.

Nez said today many graphic design companies have ruined the creative aspect and originality of the graphic design business. Even though the industry has been saturated with pre-installed templates on computers, graphic design companies are demanding the human element side of the graphic design versus standardized design Nez said. 

Nez’s passion for his community and his success in the arts has surpassed many of the hardships he has faced in life. He is a person who keeps the spirit and roots of art alive in his work and it shows through the hundreds of designs he has created for clients such as the Utah Museum of Natural HistoryEastman Kodak CompanyNavajo Transit System and many others.

Nez offered some advice to aspiring graphic design artists: “Bottom line: don’t forget the artistic aspect of art itself.  Keep the integrity of the artistic aspect alive.”