Philosophy the same in overseas conflict or art creation for Choctaw artist D.G. Smalling

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Philosophy the same in overseas conflict or art creation for Choctaw artist D.G. Smalling

Event Center creations largest ‘art investment’ in 300 years for Choctaw Nation

By Tim Farley

Whether working as a globally-known artist or a crisis management specialist in the Balkan Islands, D.G. Smalling has a similar philosophy that he’s used in both paths of his life.

“I think things through thoroughly and I execute the plan once,” he said during a recent interview. “It’s the way I grew up and I think it has to do with my time in the Balkans.”

Before becoming a professional artist 10 years ago, Smalling worked with private defense contractors in Bosnia and Kosovo during political and military upheavals in both countries. His mission, which he gladly accepted, was to defend the lives of people who had been threatened and to prevent potential coups.

Having grown up with missionary parents living in Africa, that type of life wasn’t unfamiliar.
“In the middle of chaos, someone has to think clearly and make decisions,” he said. “What I learned elsewhere isn’t irrelevant here with my work as an artist.”

Fully aware his life would be in constant danger if he returned to the Balkans, Smalling decided enough was enough. That’s when he landed a position with the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Peace Studies. At the same time, he began his professional art career, which has blossomed in the last decade. In that time, he’s completed portraitures of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie Booth-Blair, Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne, England, energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens, Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Yvonne Kauger, Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole and Mrs. Allen Houser.

In 2008, Smalling was commissioned to paint a gourd dancer for Prince Albert of Monaco’s 50th birthday. His artwork also has appeared in notable exhibitions including Epcot Disney World where he was the featured artist for Oklahoma’s Centennial Show. His work appeared at an exhibition in Paris, France and at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. where the exhibition celebrated the Choctaw Codetalkers in 2012.

His work for the code talkers was natural since Smalling is a member of the Choctaw Nation and is responsible for much of the artwork that hangs in the Choctaw Event Center, adjacent to the Choctaw Casino in Durant, OK. Smalling calls the artwork in the event center the “largest art investment in 300 years for the Choctaw Nation.”

He was allowed to select the artists who assisted him in the project with no editorial committee oversight.

“What you’re creating is not for you, but rather a significant piece of national art for 250,000-plus people,” he said. “This work will live long past by lifetime so when we were finished with that series, I had some loneliness. I was sad that that phase was done.”

The Choctaw Event series is entitled “Reclamation,” which attests to where the Choctaw Nation stands today, Smalling said.

Smalling’s style

When it comes to his artistic style, Smalling explains it starts with thorough research followed by one continuous line that forms the basis of the entire piece. In other words, Smalling places his pen on the surface and doesn’t remove it until he has completed the entire outline for a particular piece of artwork.

“Line is the foundation of all design. It defines and creates context. It provides subjects that emerge with clarity and stand without other obstructing elements or techniques,” he wrote on his website.

Smalling also discussed how his work has evolved into an exercise of contemporary Southeastern Neo-Hieroglyphics.

“By this, I mean to re-approach the hieroglyphic art of my Choctaw heritage in a modern way both in terms of materials, techniques and subjects,” he said. “The continuous line defines the contours of the subject, at which point I develop the contoured areas with paint or ink. In this way, the neo-hieroglyph conforms to the old, but is dynamically fluid with motion and not rigid. The subjects I depict are rarely historical because I want to describe life today.”

Smalling uses acid-free cotton fabric and birch wood as his most dominant surfaces.

Smalling said he enjoys the commissioned work he receives because of the trust people place in him.
“The subjects I do on a regular basis are based on what people have seen other places,” he said. “Sometimes, they request subjects I’ve never done but they like my technique. Any commission is an honor because you’re being hired to put your perspective on their mantel piece. I’ve been very fortunate in terms of the reception people have with style and eye.”

In the past, Smalling has been commissioned to draw Oklahoman and New York Yankee baseball legend Mickey Mantle swinging a bat, horse reining and wrestling.

“I love horse reining and depicting that, watching the horse and rider work together,” he said.
Unbeknownst to most people, Smalling has created artwork that’s never been seen by the public, including a series on the Oklahoma City Ballet. At times, he’ll sit in on rehearsals and sketch dancers who are not on stage.

“There’s always a juxtaposition of what’s expected and what’s real,” he said.

In the case of the ballet dancer, he’s sketched a dancer standing outside in the cold wearing tights and a winter coat while smoking a cigarette.

Smalling creates his brilliant work in the upstairs studio of a building in the Paseo District. Eventually, he plans to put an art studio in his clan town of Hochatown, which is near Beavers Bend in southeastern Oklahoma.

For more information on Smalley and his artwork, visit

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