American Indian artist preserves link to past

Honing a political message

Graphic designer Ryan Red Corn, a member of the Osage tribe, has been designing for his tribe for years. But he also works for the Pawnee Nation, Haskell University and dozens of pan-tribal associations across the country. Some of his designs can be found on an assortment of T-shirts, including those at the Solidarity Graphics bookstore, 1109 Mass.

An e-mail popped up on Ryan Red Corn’s computer Tuesday afternoon.

The subject line read: “You Die.”

The Lawrence-based artist opened it. “Hope all you liberal homos die of AIDS,” the letter read. It’s nothing that Red Corn hasn’t seen or heard before, but this message was striking.

“It was a little harsher than I’m used to,” he said.

As owner of Demockratees, a T-shirt design company, Red Corn is used to a harsh reaction from some of his more edgy designs – like a print of the Statue of Liberty that reads: False Advertisement, and a shirt that says Manifest Density with a picture of President Bush.

But Red Corn’s life is more than the shirts he designs with political slogans intended to provoke a chuckle.

Red Corn and his company, Red Hand Media, focus on working with American Indian tribes that often struggle to find quality – and authentic – design elsewhere.

He’s been designing for his Osage tribe for years. But now he works for the Pawnee Nation, for Haskell University and for dozens of pan-tribal associations across the country. It’s a labor of love and heritage, he says, not one of money or fame.

In the process, Red Corn has elevated his reputation from a scrappy local T-shirt designer to one of the most important American Indian artists of his generation.

“He is a wonderful artist,” Osage Tribal Spokeswoman Paula Stabler said. “When you see his final version, you are blown away.”

Mixing old, new

Red Corn’s company, Red Hand Media, works in nearly every conceivable medium. In addition to shirts, he edits film – including “Haskell Indians” and “Silent Tears” – designs Web pages and comes up with advertising for his dozens of tribal clients.

While many of his contemporaries stick to traditional tribal arts and crafts, Red Corn’s talents provides services that many tribes struggle to find.

“I have had to rely on Ryan in some way for every special project,” Stabler said. “And he has always come through.”

Red Corn said big businesses approached his tribe and others all the time, offering to help design a tribal government Web site or election advertisements.

Often, he said, they don’t know what they’re doing. They aren’t connected to the culture of native tribes and struggle with the intricacies of important symbolism.

“It has to look like one of their own tribal members made it,” Red Corn said of his design work for other tribes around the country. “(Big companies) don’t know how to put it together right.”

For example, Red Hand Media designed posters for the Pawnee Nation’s youth music festival. But rather than guitars and drums, the symbolism included a wolf’s head and two crossed hatchets, skull-and-crossbones style.

And Red Corn knows how important it is to connect with a heritage that, in his eyes, has been co-opted and washed away.

In fifth grade, Red Corn met Lenexa, Kansas. His family had moved to the affluent Kansas City suburb, and Red Corn was suddenly shoved into a very white world that knew close to nothing about his culture.

“The people were different,” Red Corn said. “Their frame of reference was completely different.”

Kids would make fun of his last name, he said. In a science class, a teacher told him to stop “making smoke signals” on his Bunsen burner and pay attention, Red Corn recalled.

“It led me to see how deep the problem was,” he said.

By high school, Red Corn enrolled in a commercial design class at a Shawnee Mission district vocational school. Everything he did there was political, he said – the art became his outlet.

At Kansas University, his interest in mass-media design took off – as did his involvement in American Indian programs at the university.

He was co-president of the First Nations Student Assn., at the same time his design leaned heavily on native and political imagery.

The connection between the two wasn’t a revelation for Red Corn, he said. The students at KU were for the most part the same kids he grew up with in the suburbs. His native roots and politics always intertwined.

“All these things have been going parallel,” he said. “Nothing’s new.”

Taking off

It was July 2004, just a few months before the presidential election, when he found a distribution company interested in a George Bush parody shirt.

He sold 24 shirts to a guy in Spain. He didn’t think much of it.

A week later, the distributor called, asking for 30 more. Red Corn didn’t have them. He didn’t consider that people might want more, he said.

He scrambled and had them printed. By the time the elections rolled around, he had five or six designs he was ready to sell.

But, to Red Corn’s surprise, Bush won re-election. Then sales really took off.

The next day, Nov. 3, 300 orders flooded his Web site. The day after, another 200 orders popped up. Suddenly, he was working 12- or 13-hour days, keeping up with the orders and his Red Hand Media projects.

He recently sold a design to mega-retailer Urban Outfitters – a corporate move he isn’t ecstatic with, but he knows it will help him continue to work with tribes without asking for tons of cash.

“It’s going to allow me to do so many things,” he said, excited. “That’s what I get out of it.”