Tahlequah Daily Press


June 5, 2012

Erb embraces digital technology in art

TAHLEQUAH — When it comes to ancient civilized cultures, like the Egyptians or Aztecs, most people visualize them in terms of its art images.

Soon, people may visualize Cherokee art and culture with digital technology like iPhones. Joseph Erb believes art is culture.

“I don’t know if a culture could exist with out [art],” said Erb. “If you think about great cultures in the past, you think of their art. To have a strong and growing culture, the art must strengthen and grow with it. Artists have a big responsibility to culture. Art will tell future generations that this was a time where the Cherokee language and culture was getting washed away, and then it became strong one again. That is what I hope.”

The art Erb creates is also used in his work as illustrations and inspiration, and helped link the Cherokee language to worldwide technology.

“My art fuels my work and my work fuels my art; I got my job through my art. Animations led to a job,” he said.

Erb has worked for five years as a language technologist for the Cherokee Nation, and his work creating new niches for the Cherokee language is “amazing,” he said.

“Cherokee is now on iPhones and there’s a Google search engine in Cherokee,” Erb said. “Localization of one of the most popular operating systems in Windows 8 is going to be in Cherokee on every computer.”

With all the advances in technology, he hopes to help people better understand and appreciate Cherokee and tribal culture and people. He’s lived in other countries and noticed residents interface culture and technology.

“Every culture uses technology,” said Erb. “You don’t think of Italians not being Italian if they have technology, or Brazilians to be less Brazilian if they have a radio, but people think of Indians being less Indian with technology,” he said. “I saw a white couple shooting pics of an Indian in powwow regalia, talking on his cell phone like they’d seen a three-headed goat.”

He’s bothered by people having stereotypes of what they think native culture, Cherokee culture, is.

“You can be very technical and very tribal, like the Cherokee Phoenix printing press. It was advanced technology for them and for the time,” he said. “The first telephone was purchased by Cherokees, connecting Tahlequah with Fort Gibson.”

Erb said Cherokees have adopted every form of advanced technology.

“So it’s no surprise that Cherokees would continue to adopt the latest technology, like iPhones, social mediums and text messaging in the Cherokee language, and they were early adapters,” he said.

Erb derives immense satisfaction in being part of a team.

“One of the great things about doing this work is working with Roy Boney, Jeff Edwards, Durbin Feeling and all the great Cherokee speakers at the Cherokee Nation,” Erb said. “Preserving the Cherokee language is a group effort, and there are great people in this culture. It’s inspiring.”

For six years before his current job, he worked for the American Indian Resource Center on a variety of projects, including making claymation films with rural schools. His thesis work for his Masters in Fine Art in Digital Media from the University of Pennsylvania was creating the first Cherokee animation in the Cherokee language .

“I decided when I finished that [project], I would move back here and teach others how to do it – to continue making things in the Cherokee language. American Indian Resource Center wrote me into a grant that got funded,” Erb said. “I would go out in different communities and work with children and teach them animation. At the end of the project, the children at each school would finish a short animation in the Cherokee or Creek language, depending on which community I was teaching in.”

After a few years, he met Roy Boney, when Boney began working at AIRC, too.

This was really fun, great work,” said Erb. “And it was important for many reasons. The children needed computer skills. And they were learning more about the Cherokee language and traditional stories. It was building pride into the child. They were making something they thought was really cool and advanced, and using traditional community knowledge to do it.”

Erb blames the devaluing of the local community for the loss of language and culture.

“And it has great value,” he said. “The outside world, much of the time, sees it as backward or a lesser culture, and this influences our children. These Native American cultures are thousands of years old and have wisdom and knowledge built in the language. The key is to get the next generation to understand this before it is too late.”

Traveling has helped Erb appreciate more of his homeland’s beauty.

“I think everyday influence in Oklahoma has great potential in influencing young artists,” he said. “The key seems to be realizing how many cool things are here. There are great artists here who are inspiring. My friends and colleagues, like Roy Boney and Jeff Edwards, are always making art. That keeps my energy level high. Then other artists around like America Meredith, Troy Jackson, Tony Tiger and Bobby Martin. Murv Jacob, downtown, makes great work. They’re all making different types of work with similar concepts about culture.”

Erb earned a Bachelor’s of Fine Art from Oklahoma City University, where he met his wife, Nuket Erb Duman, at the Oklahoma City University. She is an artist and musician, and a native of Turkey.

“[I have been making art] as long as I have had an understanding of me,” he said. “When I could pick up a pencil or piece of clay, I was always making something. Art It is the way I communicate. Some talk, some sing, some write, I create.”

Even before the iPhone, he was doing animation and painting digital technology in them. He’s inspired by ideas expressed in new ways.

“I like digital, but I still paint, mostly with acrylic, but also drawing and some watercolor,” he said.

He’s also a sculptor and does bronze works, which he studied in Italy.

“It’s kind of cliché, but I wanted to see Michelangelo. I lived two blocks from his ‘David’ statue and near the library where he designed the front steps,” Erb said. “That experience helped me. When you go off and see different cultures and you come home, you can really see the culture and distinct values you missed or didn’t recognize before.”

Cherokee people and people in the south are more concerned with people’s well-being, more than what they do for a living or what they’re working on, he said.

“You can be considered very important by the community and not have a lot of financial wealth,” he said. “I think that is cool.”

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