Native American designer finds home

by RITA TOTTEN

The definition of home is different for everyone. Some people consider home a place where family lives; others view home as where one feel the most at peace. For many, a simple definition of home is hard to construct.

Cal Nez, a successful Native American graphic designer, has struggled with the idea of home for as long as he can remember.

“Is home a physical location or inside me or Sandy, Utah?” Nez wondered during an  interview at the University of Utah.

As is tradition in the Navajo Nation, Nez was given to his grandparents to be raised at a young age. However, instead of being raised by his mother’s clan, which is considered to be dominant, Nez was raised by his father’s side. He never knew his mother and hardly knew his father. When he was about 5 years old he was forced, like so many Native Americans, by the federal government to attend boarding school.

Nez remembers his experience at boarding school as nothing short of hell and likens his time there to prison.

“I understand every aspect of confinement, abuse, of mental manipulation,” Nez said.

According to Amnesty International USA Magazine, beginning in 1869 with President Grant’s Peace Policy, more than 100,000 Native American children were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools in an attempt to “Americanize” the Native American population.

A scene he plays back in his head is one of a long, dark hallway at the boarding school in New Mexico. He is standing at one end and his grandmother is walking slowly down the hallway toward a tiny door, barely visible. Nez said he would never forget that image and the feeling he had of loneliness when his grandmother left him.

When Nez was a sophomore in high school he enrolled in the Latter-day Saints Indian Placement Program. The program placed Native American students with LDS families and Nez moved to Salt Lake City to attend South High School.

“I came to Salt Lake to learn what a normal family was,” Nez explained. But before he began his journey he had to deal with leaving his grandmother and the need to find himself. Nez vividly remembers leaving his family but telling them that he would remember who he was. He promised to come back for his grandmother.

This parallel in his life, first his grandmother leaving him and then leaving his grandmother would shape the ideas he has about family and belonging.

Nez moved to Salt Lake and attended Sough High School. While attending South, Nez felt the drive to succeed. He excelled in art and design and was the first Sterling Scholar in Art from South High. He remembers seeing the seniors graduate with honors and all the adornments. At that moment he realized he wanted to feel that sense of pride and accomplishment. He wanted to emulate the success he had seen the other students achieve.

Nez said he had always been able to duplicate and capture images and showed talent at a young age. At the boarding school he remembers doing one of his first drawings and his teacher, Ms. Beach, rewarded him with a one-dollar bill. The drawing was of Abraham Lincoln chopping wood.

With his natural ability to recreate designs and determination to “make it” Nez worked locally for a couple of advertising agencies. While working, however, he discovered he was missing something.

Nez decided he needed to take his talents and start his own business. “I quit. I packed up my stuff and left,” he recalled. Nez and his wife, Yolanda, were expecting their first child.

Armed with nothing more than his portfolio, Nez drove to Arizona to present his raw abilities in graphic design to the Chairman of the Navajo Nation, Peter MacDonald. Nez walked into MacDonald’s office and said: “I want to show you what I can do.” He walked out with two jobs.

One of the jobs MacDonald assigned him was for the Navajo Nation Fair in 1989. It is an original oil painting depicting a Navajo man wearing silver sunglasses and the scene of the fair can be seen in the reflection. Nez said this painting symbolizes the presence of the Native American.

The face of the man in the poster is made up of a collection of a few dozen different faces, one of which is his wife’s, Yolanda, grandfather.

Cal Nez Design, based out of Salt Lake City, is a 100 percent Native American graphic design and advertising agency. In October 2005 Nez was featured on the cover of Utah Business Magazine, when it highlighted minority business owners in Utah. Of the experience Nez says it was and is such a great honor. He said he just hopes he can be a good role model for other Native American business owners.

His philosophy about graphic design is that he tries to keep the integrity of the art. Each piece he works on and designs has his own personal touch. Nez believes the world of graphic design should move away from pre-made templates and generic work; he wants to return to the human aspect. “Every client is different,” he said. “Every message is different.”