The versatile art forms of Steven Paul Judd (Kiowa) have made him a household name in Indian Country. Inspired by his two favorite artists, graffitist Banksy and comic-book author Gary Larson (The Far Side), he learned he could make a statement with a single image.
His visual art produces satire by manipulating images of popular culture. He indigenizes superheroes like “The Indian Hulk” and “Siouxperman,” sends Star Wars fighters flying over teepee villages, and offers a “Rock’em Sock’em Robots: Indian Wars Edition” with George Armstrong Custer.
He states two reasons for his art, “One, there really wasn’t any Pop Art geared toward Native Peoples except for Bunky Echo Hawk. I wanted to make stuff for a market that wasn’t there. Two, [I want to] educate people on some things without talking down to them or yelling at them. They can laugh at it, like ‘Oh wait, did that really happen?’ and they can learn from it, starting from a humorous point.”
Judd doesn’t just express himself through his paintings and graphic design. He also writes and makes films. A former staff writer for Disney XD sitcom Zeke and Luther and a member of the Writers Guild of America, he turns out screenplays for television and film and creates cartoon stories. His short films have received numerous awards; honors have gone to Search for the World’s Best Indian Taco, a fantastical story that includes flying cars, and Ronnie BoDean, an homage to the anti-hero with actor Wes Studi.
He has ventured into music videos, featuring artists like singer Spencer Battiest (Seminole), a Native American Music Awards’ winner for Best Pop Recording. Currently his most notable film works are his stop-motion shorts which explore Native issues through tongue-in-cheek humor. Some of his animated shorts include First Contact, a take on European “discovery” through the Indigenous perspective, and Neil Discovers the Moon a knock on the theory of the first landing on the moon. “It’s like I want to say something,” he says of his stop-motion stories. “I want to make something. It’s a creative way to tell those stories.”
Steven Paul Judd was born in Oklahoma of the Kiowa and Choctaw Tribe. “I wasn’t born well off,” he says. “Not only did I live in a trailer, I lived in the trailer behind the trailer. Like our trailer was too small for our family so we had a camper hooked up to it.” At a young age, while living on the reservation in Mississippi, he was diagnosed with polio.
Just recently, director Kyle Bell (Thlopthlocco/Creek) documented an intimate portrait of Judd’s life in the film Dig It if You Can. Judd was unsure at first about the project because he thought that in the hours it would take to film, Kyle would be bored. He says, “I was telling him if this doesn’t turn out right, I don’t mind you saying this isn’t a good documentary.” The film ended up winning the 2016 SWAIA Class X Best Short Documentary and is now touring the film festival circuit with positive reviews.
Judd’s art has become even more popularized by his use of social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, to promote his works. He now has global access, not just to the Native community but to millions of people around the world. His works have been picked up and re-shared by celebrity artists including singer Billy Ray Cyrus and music mogul Russell Simmons. He whole-heartedly believes that social media has been one of the most important factors of accessibility for artists like himself. “Social media for me has leveled the playing field,” he says. “People who may not normally have access to my work can now see it.”
But social media is not only a medium for his works but a way to make a living. “If it wasn’t for that,” he says. “I would be working at some store and not making any art you know. It’s allowed me to make art and to explore art…if it wasn’t for social media I probably couldn’t keep doing art in any form – filmmaking, writing or even painting.”
Because of his social media popularity, he receives invitations from around the world to conduct seminars for youth, both Native and non-Native. His self-taught style of creating visual art has allowed him to share his own experiences with youth who already have the technology readily available, such as their smartphones. The seminars he conducts somewhat stem from his own lack of opportunities at a young age. He believes that in the current digital age, youth now have a greater opportunity than his generation for making amazing visual art.
“I want these kids to know that ‘Dude you can do this now,’” he says. “I mean the first film I ever made is a little movie called American Indian Graffiti. The cellphone that I own now is a better quality than the first film I ever made. I just want them to know that they are only really limited to their own imagination now.”
He remarks that picking up a cellphone and shooting a film is pretty basic but sometimes youth don’t realize how simple it is. He finds that once kids realize they can make a full movie from their cellphone it’s a whole new experience. He stresses that it can open up other opportunities, such as showcasing their films at film institutions and festivals.
“It’s like, ‘I can make a movie with my cellphone and it will play at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian?’ Yeah, you can…you literally can,” he says. “You can be at home, have a cellphone, borrow your uncle’s cellphone, make a film and they [NMAI] can literally look at it and give it a chance…. There are no special effects…no famous actors….”
Judd continues to experiment with different ideas and different mediums, still infusing pop culture references with a Native twist. He is currently in post-production on a short film, spoken entirely in Choctaw, that he says is a cross between The Goonies, and The Never Ending Story. His book The Last Powwow which he co-wrote with Thomas Yeahpau will be published in 2016.
When asked if his use of popular images has somewhat influenced his future direction, he replies, “I use satire, right. I’m sure someone is going to say something but so far, no. I’m going to keep making stuff that I think people want to see until someone says ‘cease and desist.’ Like maybe George Lucas doesn’t like me putting Star Wars figures with Indians.” He jokes that the side buns of Princess Leia resemble a traditional Hopi woman hair style, “Yeah, yeah they stealin’ that dawg. I will say, ‘George you took that from the Hopis. You need to cease and desist [laughs].’”