Preview Cart Checkout

Become a Member

Join Today!

Willa Cather Foundation - Red Cloud Nebraska (NE)

Receive our Newsletter


49 Minutes of Fame Artist Profile: Johnnie Diacon

49 Minutes of Fame Artist Profile: Johnnie Diacon

Johnnie Diacon creates traditional and contemporary Indigenous art, depicts Muscogee culture in his works.

Tulsa-based artist Johnnie Diacon’s introduction to art began in an unusual setting: an optometrist’s office in Springdale, Arkansas.

When Diacon was in the fourth grade, he says he started to experience vision problems that prompted his father to take him to the eye doctor. While being fitted for glasses, Diacon became enthralled with the optometrist’s collection of traditional flat-style paintings, a 20th-century Native American artistic movement that emphasized shape and contouring.

Diacon says this visit to the eye doctor marked the beginning of his passion for art and design. 

Those flat-style paintings were my first interest in art,” he says. “I loved seeing the old paintings with all the shapes and bright colors.”

Humble beginnings

Growing up in the 1960s, Diacon received further artistic exposure from his adoptive father, Delmer Diacon, a Cherokee graphic artist and sign painter. Born to Native parents, Diacon says he developed a dual interest in art and Indigenous culture, which was cemented by his growing fascination with flat-style atwork.

As he came of age, Diacon worked frequently with his father, who was a master at creating hand lettered signs. He says his father wanted him to take over his sign painting business, but due to his perception that hand lettering was “a dying art form,” Diacon chose to focus on other types of art. In high school, he decided he wanted to become an animator, but he didn’t pursue any post-secondary art education opportunities at the time.

“They didn’t prepare you to go to college as a Native American,” Diacon says. “Back then, teachers pushed you to complete your studies and graduate.”

A primarily self-taught artist, Diacon says he didn’t feel comfortable then with pursuing a degree or devoting himself to his craft full-time. For many years, he worked various jobs, mainly at warehouses and a local hospital, while creating art on the side. During this time, he began to enter his work in Native art competitions and shows.

Once he started winning awards and recognition from various shows, Diacon says he finally decided to return to Oklahoma and gain formal art training at Muskogee’s Bacone College.

“It wasn’t until later on that I attended Bacone College’s art program,” he says, “and I thought, ‘This is it.’”

The importance of representation

After graduating from Bacone College with honors, Diacon studied art for a semester at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma before transferring to the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the University of Arkansas. While at the University of Arkansas, he says he continued to study flat-style and watercolor painting. He was three semesters away from earning his BFA when he transferred to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe to study contemporary Native art.

Along with Indigenous influences, Diacon says his early fascination with Art Nouveau also spurred his interest in pop art. He has combined his love for Art Nouveau and 60s concert posters into his creations, often illustrating Native traditions using 1960s motifs. Two examples of this type of work are “Sayvtketv (Stompdance)” and “Gourd Dance,” which he is displaying at the 49 Minutes of Fame Native pop art exhibit in the Red Cloud Opera House Gallery.

"I always liked Art Nouveau and 60s concert posters,” Diacon says. “I wanted to use those themes, but also include an Indian style. It’s totally Indian, but it’s got that concert poster look.”

In his work, Diacon says he strives to depict Indigenous culture through traditional and modern styles. His art often focuses on the Muscogee (Creek) people, and he usually creates his contemporary work on gessoed board or stretched canvas using acrylics or oils.

"My art is geared toward the Muscogee people,” Diacon says. “It’s important to me to tell our stories in an accurate and authentic way. It’s really important that people see our images.”

Tragedy and triumph

While Diacon has achieved purpose in sharing his people’s stories, he stepped away from art indefinitely when his wife miscarried their daughter in 2000. Eight years later, he lost another daughter to suicide. Diacon says he might have given up painting entirely if not for the Bah Kho-Je Xla Chi (Grey Snow Eagle House), an eagle rehabilitation program he attended that the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma developed.

After seeing the perseverance of the injured birds, Diacon says he felt a sense of hope in what he believed was a sacred message from the Creator to start anew. In 2014, he began making art again, more determined than ever to represent the Muscogee tribe in his works.

“I feel like I need to show my people accurately,” Diacon says. “I’m a record keeper that way. It’s a portrayal of who we are.”

Through art, Diacon says he has learned discipline and self-expression.

He also says he appreciates art due to the connection it gives him to his culture.

“I never thought years ago at the eye doctor that people would see my stuff,” Diacon says. “I want it to be accurate and interesting. It’s bridging the gap between the past and the future.”

About Johnnie Diacon

Johnnie Diacon is an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma (Mvskoke), Thlopthlocco Tribal Town (Raprakko Etvlwa), and a member of the Deer Clan (Ecovlke). He is a graduate of Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A noted artist for nearly four decades, he currently lives on the Muscogee Creek Nation Reservation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his wife Nikki and their son Emerson.

To learn more about Johnnie Diacon and his art, visit his Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. 

Learn more about 49 Minutes of Fame: An Exhibition of Native Pop Art which was installed at the Red Cloud Opera House Gallery from November 5-December 14, 2021 • For a list of other 49 Minutes of Fame artist profiles on this website, click here • You can also view the digital gallery here.

We are grateful to freelance writer Juli Oberlander for her artist biographies and public relations efforts for this exhibit.