About The Artist
Sharon Irla (b. 1957 -- ) is a contemporary Cherokee artist whose collective body of works span the fields of painting,
murals, graphics and photography. Her studio is located in Tahlequah,
Irla’s current artistic field of focus is that of oil paintings - primarily portraits of Indigenous
women in which Irla seeks to capture contemporary, traditional and historical feminine and/or matriarchal themes. Her
works reach beyond the visual aesthetic, as Irla is very purposeful in researching and
choosing subject matters that will illustrate the presence and importance of Indigenous women – both in historic and
contemporary settings. For her contemporary themes, Irla situates live models in dress, pose, and settings, where she seeks to explore the
multifaceted form and spirit of the “everyday” Native woman – balanced in the cusp of traditional roots and modern living.
To the casual passer-by, Irla’s richly painted portraits of Native American women are often mistaken for photographs or
photo-realism, however, her technique would more aptly be categorized as representational, flourished with tenebrism.
The stated end-goal of her hybrid style of realism, is “to create art” – the locus of which is “to capture the spirit of the
subject matter". This might include ancient Indigenous designs and symbols, as well as use a variety of "faux painting" techiques.
Through her first commissioned works, Irla acquired the painting techniques required of a
muralist and decorative artist. She credits this period of time as the experience through which she “…
learned that faux finish techniques brought a better understanding of how the juxtaposition of colors, layers of paint,
glazes, and a large variety of brushes all play a major role in achieving realism.” But for portraits, Irla prefers the Old Master techniques
to achieve richness in skin tones.
•Unique Frames -
Collectors of some of Irla’s paintings are, in effect, acquiring two works of art, as some of these works are framed with the artist's hand-built,
custom designed frames. These uniquely designed and textured frames subtly incorporate stylized ancient
Indigenous symbols and iconography, which delicately echo and enhance the themes established within the
paintings. Paintings with these frames include "Cherokee Beauty - The Shell Earring", "Crows Stirring The Magic", "Mother's Prayer" and "Mississippian Ink".
Like many other contemporary Cherokee artists, Irla is very cognizant of the fact that she is creating works during a unique
historical phase, which some would term as nothing short of a renaissance. Since the late 20th century, there has been an
artistic movement afoot in NE Oklahoma and North Carolina, the focus of which is to promote Southeastern and Woodland Native
American art though the combining of artistic creation with that of intense scholarship.
Some of the earliest work of this movement came in the 1970’s from Cherokee Master Artist, Anna B. Mitchell (1926), whose
award-winning traditional Cherokee pottery challenged the commercial, stereotypical concept of American Indian Art.
Mitchell’s well-researched works helped re-awaken the art community to the fact that the Southeastern Woodlands are the
ancestral homelands of the Cherokee -- not the plains of Oklahoma. Prior to 1970, many Cherokee artists were utilizing
Plains Indian and Southwestern Indian artistic styles and themes in their works. And while this may have been commercially
successful, it lacked a certain authenticity, which Mitchell’s works brought to light.
In stark contrast to SW and Plains tribal art, Southeastern/Woodland art employs effigies and rich iconography that depicts
mythical creatures, sacred plants, animals, reptiles, insects, goddesses, and rituals that are unique to the Southeast. The
notion of recapturing authenticity invited a whole new generation of Cherokee artists to examine and utilize ancient
Cherokee design, cosmology, and history in their work.
From 1980 and forward, several notable “authentic” Cherokee artists began to emerge. For example, the intricately beaded
bandolier bags, moccasins, and sashes, by Cherokee Beader, Martha Berry, are not only beautiful works of art, but carry with
them a history of ancient Cherokee geometric designs, life and dress. The militaristic depictions of historical figures and
events by Cherokee painter/sculptor, Talmadge Davis (1962-2005) fit well within this movement – as do the works of Cherokee
potters Victoria Mitchell Vasquez, Bill Glass, Chrystal Hanna and several others. Also noteworthy is the
Chattanoogas 21 Century Riverfront Project (2005) in which Irla and several other Cherokee artists assisted the GaDuGi art-
team of Bill Glass, Demos Glass, Robby McMurtry, Knovtee Scott and Ken Foster. Like Anna Mitchell, these and other artists
have contributed to and helped preserve the knowledge base of Cherokee Woodland life, which was previously nearly lost to
Western assimilation, Indian removal, and Pan-Indian artistic conflation.
Within this renaissance movement, contemporary Cherokee artists seek to correct the historical record by recapturing and
reintroducing the Tribe’s accurate historic art, cultural, and cosmological understandings in contemporary works of art. And
it is within this movement that Sharon Irla has established her own niche as a contemporary painter, muralist,
photographer … and community organizer.
•Artistic Movement & Community Organization -
The importance of combining artistic movement with that of community organization cannot be over-stated, for the very cradle
of the current renaissance rests at this intersection. Here, a notable shift in Cherokee tribal identify has taken root.
Here, authenticity can be seen to facilitate self-determination, which in turn helps to sustain a sizable portion of the
local art community.
Such is the intent of the non-profit Cherokee Artists Association, Inc. (now Southeastern Indian Artists Association), of which Irla is one of the founding members.
2004, and based in Tahlequah, Ok, the volunteers of the Cherokee Artists Association (CAA) were instrumental in
the business, legal, and administrative branches of the Cherokee Nation adopting policies and enacted new laws in 2007,
which begin to protect the copyrights and other interests of artists who sell
their creations to the tribe. In 2008, the CAA’s modest, but successful fund-raising campaigns enabled the group to
establish physical offices in which the group holds meetings, offers artists workshops, and conducts seminars. In that same
year, the CAA also established an art gallery where CAA members have the opportunity to show and sell their works direct to
the public, year round.
Importantly, then, this renaissance isn’t just about art as a decorative function, but it is about how art can unite a
community, influence policy, and sustain a culture, both metaphorically and literally.
•Career Phases -
Irla’s professional art career began in earnest in 1988 when she founded the graphic arts firm, “In-Print” in Dallas, Texas.
She spent ten years in the Dallas area as a successful, self-employed graphic artist, during which time she juggled her
career with that of being a single mother. When her only offspring (a daughter), reached adulthood, Irla felt she could
finally take the financial risks that come with that of being an emerging artist.
In 1999, collaborating with muralist Leslie Young, Irla began taking commissions to create murals and decorative art for
businesses and multi-million dollar homes. She soon landed a 2-year solo project in which she created several Trompe l'oeil
murals in an Italian Villa styled home. These well-received, realistic murals were featured on the Texas home-design TV show,
In 2003 Irla left the financially lucrative region of Dallas and moved to NE Oklahoma to be closer to her Cherokee roots and
to immerse herself in the SE Woodland art movement that is still evolving in this region. Since that move, Irla’s paintings
have been accepted in all competitive art shows of the region, and her work has consistently received awards in each: