Many who walk into Joel Queen’s gallery mistakenly assume the artwork there solely represents Cherokee tradition.
After all, Queen comes from a long line of Cherokee potters and basketmakers who passed down their art to him as soon as he was able to crawl. And he’s one of Cherokee’s most prominent artists — among the few to successfully run his own gallery and to teach at the Southwestern Community College’s Oconaluftee Institute of Cultural Arts.
But looking closer, it becomes clear that Queen’s artistic vision extends far beyond the Qualla Boundary. His work is as much inspired from Greek vessels, Egyptian sculptures, and Celtic designs as aesthetic traditions from Cherokee and the Southeast.
Queen is just as interested in seeing what Cherokee artists produce as what artists on the other side of the country are up to. He loves traveling across the nation with his family, competing at art shows like at the Sante Fe Indian Market, especially for this purpose.
“The competition keeps me on my toes,” said Queen. “I thrive on it. If I don’t win one year, I’m going to have to do something better next year. That part of it, I really love.”
Even if he doesn’t win, though, the art market provides Queen the perfect opportunity to observe new artistic traditions as they are being formulated.
Queen, along with fellow artist and friend John Grant, decided to create Cherokee’s own annual art market because they saw it as integral to bringing fresh ideas to the region’s art scene.
“The only way art advances is to be able to see what’s going on outside of here,” said Queen, adding that the art market has the additional benefit of boosting the local economy.
An ongoing education
Queen had learned the craft of basketmaking from his grandmother when he was just 5 years old and later fell in love with sculpture. But when Queen settles down to work in one of his two studios, he doesn’t limit himself to just one, or even two, kinds of media.
Queen credits his high school art teacher for showing him how to diversify, which ended up complementing Queen’s own personality in the end.
“It was very eye-opening for me to be able to work in leatherwork, silverwork, clay and paintings,” said Queen.
“... I don’t like being confined. I like being able to express how I feel through different media.”
Luckily for Queen, that versatility has been useful in a volatile economy, when one medium might not sell as well as another.
With a diverse skill set in tow, Queen set out for his next challenge, large-scale pieces — what later became his signature style. Since many artists didn’t like to work large at the time, Queen had to resort to self-teaching to learn to build such heavy pieces.
“Large pieces are more challenging. That’s why I like doing them so much,” said Queen. “It keeps it interesting. It’s very easy for me to lose interest if there’s not a challenge to it.”
Now, Queen can create sculptures 10 to 12 feet tall as well as he can build miniature pieces as small as 2 or 3 inches tall.
Queen also hand builds his pottery, rather than throwing it on the wheel. Pots won’t be perfectly symmetrical this way, but each piece is unique, different from the one before. Though hand building was slow going at first, Queen learned techniques to speed up the process, so he can create at nearly the same rate as an artist who wheel throws.
“I’m not knocking wheel throwing work,” said Queen. “It’s still beautiful and takes talent to do it, but hand building is just a totally different area.”
For one thing, when the electricity goes out, Queen can go right on creating.
“As long as you got wood, you can still burn the pot,” said Queen.