Published May 20, 2018
SULPHUR, Okla. – Leslie Deer’s Native American applique art career was born of necessity while performing in a completely different branch of the arts as a professional dancer who entertained audiences around the globe.
“I was a cast member of American Indian Dance Theatre out of New York City,” said Deer, who resides in Holdenville, Oklahoma. “I went all over the United States and to about 23 or 24 different countries and traveled with them for almost 12 years.”
The sheer number of performances and hectic schedule presented a problem.
“When you’re touring, doing eight shows a week and you just have two or three little dresses, it gets old really quick. That’s how I got started making some regalia for myself,” she said.
Soon, others noticed the unique quality of her designs and craftsmanship. “I made my own clothes and other people asked me to make theirs and other people suggested I go to art markets.”
Deer, a Muscogee-Creek tribal member, will join over 100 other Native American artists who will display their works at the Artesian Arts Festival Saturday, May 26 in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
Her specialty, applique, is a sewing technique in which a design is cut out of fabric and affixed to an underlying piece of fabric by sewing around the edges.
“A lot of Woodland tribes use applique,” Deer said. “They did it by hand a long time ago and traded with visitors for fabrics, silks and ribbons, and used those in creative and decorative ways.”
Deer’s mother, who died in 2000, was a big influence on her art. “She used to make a lot of my traditional clothing prior to me doing them myself,” she said. “She was a very inspirational Muscogee Creek woman who always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do.”
One of the opportunities her mother persuaded her to get involved with resulted in Deer being chosen Miss Indian Oklahoma in 1984. This and intertribal dancing experiences at area powwows is what got her invited to join the dance troupe.
Her first foray into applique came through a Sac and Fox community class that taught the technique. More formal training followed as she earned a bachelor’s degree in apparel design and production from Oklahoma State University in 2015. This supplemented a previous bachelor’s degree Deer earned from the University of Oklahoma in public affairs administration in 1988.
Today her art features “curvilinear lines,” or spirals and curves.
“I was influenced a lot, and draw upon, artwork from the (Muskogean) mound-builder culture in the southeast in Georgia and Alabama,” she said. “Sometimes I look at the old pottery designs that have been excavated from mound sites by archaeologists and draw from those designs. A lot of times they aren’t geometric like you would see in Plains tribes, but there are a lot of spirals and curves and I have an affinity for those.”
Deer said she is looking forward to displaying her art at the Artesian Arts Festival.
“I’m looking forward to meeting new people and networking with other artists. I appreciate the Chickasaw Nation for holding art markets and providing us artists the opportunity to put our work in front of the public.”