By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Marlena Myles (Spirit Lake Dakota) is a self-taught artist gaining recognition through her digital vector work. Her art has shown at All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis and Red Cloud Heritage Center in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, as well as a solo show at the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City, South Dakota. She’s currently an artist-in-residence at Nawayee Center School in Minneapolis, working with Native students for the Mde Maka Ska festival. Marlena is a 2017 First Peoples Fund Artists in Business Leadership fellow.
At the 2016 Horse Nation exhibit, children rushed forward, pulling their parents along, to see Marlena’s vibrant art. In a world of superheroes and computers, digital art is a way Marlena can instill cultural values, knowledge and stories into young people. The children’s attraction to Marlena’s vector art inspired her to preserve the at-risk Dakota language through children’s books.
Marlena’s art has evolved to not only share history but reflect her people’s lives today. Vector art — based on mathematical formulas — lets her create original works that aren’t imitative, even though her artwork is an output of the traditions and stories she learns about her people. She sees how they can update old ways and be relevant to their lives in the modern world. The contemporary tools behind her art become a channel to youth, inspiring them to create a future that connects with their pasts, a future alive with their cultural values.
With help from Dakota elders and language specialists, Marlena is creating e-books, educational posters, flash cards, and coloring/workbooks to make learning the language fresh, accessible, and entertaining for children. First Peoples Fund's support is helping Marlena towards completing the sacred hoop she believes connects us: sharing knowledge of elders and looping it back to younger generations, and in the process rebuilding what was lost, letting youth see the old ways in the same light as superheroes in pop culture.
At that opening reception during the Horse Nation exhibit, Marlena’s eyes were opened to illustrating children’s Indigenous-language books. Books for parents to read to their children, to teach them about their native heritage and reclaim the language as their own. Marlena makes art that belongs to all.