Cal Nez finds success

by JESSICA DUNN

He dropped her off, watching as she bravely walked away. He couldn’t bear to leave, so he waited outside all day, his anxiety building. Would she be coming back to him?

Finally, after Courtney’s first day of kindergarten, Cal Nez held his oldest daughter in his arms once again. She was completely fine. Nothing had happened, and she had loved it.

He wished he had been as easygoing and happy about school as his children, Courtney, Chelsey and Colby, are.

As a child, Nez didn’t know the comfort of being with his family during the school year. He spent many of those years away from his home in Tocito, N.M. At 6 years old, he left for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School in nearby Sanostee, where he learned to speak English for the first time. He describes the boarding school as a “demon of the past” and a negative and “horrible experience” for him. The children there had to wake up early, stand at attention and were allowed little time to play. It “took away the beauty of childhood,” he said.

It was during this time, though, that Nez discovered his artistic talent. He made his first drawing, a picture of Abraham Lincoln chopping the cherry tree, at boarding school. He had always been an artist, and he knew he was good at duplicating images. But the teacher praised him for his illustration of Abe and gave him a one-dollar bill.

Nez, 50, was born in the Navajo Nation, Tachiinii Clan for the Tanaszanii Clan. His grandparents, Bitonie and Mary B. Nez, raised him.

Nez spent his junior high school years herding sheep and going to public school. Before high school, he learned about the Indian Student Placement Program, where Native American students were placed in Latter-day Saint homes during the school year. It was this exchange that brought him to Utah.

He was reluctant to leave his familiar surroundings, but his grandma encouraged the idea and told him that she had nothing for him in Tocito. He would be better off by going away.

In tears, he left, saying that he would always remember who he was. He promised to return, and he was determined to make it, no matter the trials.

In Salt Lake City, he studied at South High School for three years. He was successful at everything he tried. He received academic honors and was a member of the wrestling team and newspaper staff. He also won the Sterling Scholar Award for the visual arts, proving his artistic talents.

Nez wanted to be a painter or an architect while growing up, until he discovered commercial art. He worked for several graphic design firms, including Ted Nagata Graphic Design, Inc. and Smith and Clarkson Design.

“When he worked for me, his work ethic was unparalleled,” said Larry Clarkson through an e-mail correspondence. “I believe a great deal of his current work philosophy is a result of working with me, as well as another successful designer, Ted Nagata, early in his career.”

Nez’s art was getting recognition and winning awards, so he decided to work for himself. He quit his job, even though his wife, Yolanda, was pregnant.

“I think one of the key parts of starting your own business is insanity,” said Nez.

Nez packed up his portfolio of designs and went to talk to Peter MacDonald, the former Navajo Nation chairman, and his business was born.

Nez started Cal Nez Design, a graphic design and advertising company in Salt Lake City, Utah, 20 years ago. He takes on a variety of projects, and he gets involved, taking time with each of his designs. Nez likes to focus on the message and target audience for each. He brings every piece of his designs together to create the best communication possible, and he strives to keep the Navajo traditions alive through his art.

Cal Nez Design is now one of the oldest companies in the United States owned by a Native American. And Nez was even featured on the cover of Utah Business magazine in October of 2005.

With all his success, Nez has not forgot his people, traditions or where he came from. He visits Tocito, but things are not the same as they used to be. Sheep corral fences have rotted. A roof of a friend’s house has caved in. And there is not a sheep in sight.

But when he returns, he still goes to the top of a mountain nearby that he went to as a child. Today, though, he sits up there with a laptop in his hands and many successes to his name.