Salt Lake graphic designer builds business from scratch

by LANA GROVES

Cal Nez remembered working at a small but growing graphic design business in Utah in the late 1980s. He was content being an artist and working on logos and designs, but the pay was small for the number of awards his designs were receiving.

“We were the ad agency, graphic design [company] of that era,” he said. “We were taking every award. The designs in there, they were mine.”

Nez, a member of the Navajo Nation, realized that he was working at minimum wage or less, and not receiving as much credit for his work as he should. After another couple of weeks contemplating the issue, Nez decided to quit and open his own business.

Nez explained the decision to his pregnant wife, Yolanda, and set out in his car to New Mexico in search of work. He introduced himself to Peter MacDonald, former chairman of the Navajo Nation, and showed his portfolio.

“I picked up two jobs that meeting,” Nez said. “The dollar amount was quite significant for someone who was making 6 dollars an hour.”

Nez started out designing the Navajo Nation poster in 1989 and has since gone on to create the design for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, former Gov. Mike Leavitt’s re-election campaign and others.

More than 20 years after that fateful day, Nez is the one of few Native Americans in Utah to own a business in Utah.

Nez said he was one of the first design company owners to create a web site for his company, Cal Nez Design, Inc., which is a prospering graphic design and advertising company. He said the thrill of finishing designs for a client still makes it worth the effort.

“Right now I just finished a project for the United States Marines,” Nez said. “I get this energy. I love art; I love that challenge.”

In addition to running his own business, Nez started the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce in April 2008 by sending out letters to registered businesses in Utah.

“We’ve started small, but it’s going well,” said Sandy McCabe, a board member and owner of Sandy’s Kitchen. “Cal has done a lot.”

Nez remembered the path he took to become a business owner. He spent six years in a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that he despised. The schools were part of an effort in the 1800s that required Native American children to attend English-speaking schools to assimilate them into American culture. By 1902, the United States government had opened 25 federally funded schools.

Despite that turmoil, Nez said he first realized his potential as an artist at the school.

He left his grandparents in New Mexico at 16 to live with a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints family in Utah and studied at South High School in Salt Lake City. Nez said his experience in Utah changed his life, and although he thinks of his Navajo heritage with pride, he also considers himself an active LDS church member.

Now, Nez has a family of his own. He remembers when his first daughter, Courtney was going to school for the first time.

“I sat out there literally all day to make sure she was going to come back to my arms,” he said, remembering the terrifying experience of his first school.

Nez’s son, Colby, is in high school, and Nez said he is proud of the school work he brings home.

Besides spending as much time with his family as possible, Nez continues his business and produces designs for other organizations. He cherishes his Native American roots and includes that in his designs as much as possible.

“I can go out there and oil paint any concept you can imagine,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any sign that looks alike.”