Award-winning Choctaw artist Linda Kukuk has never hesitated to step out of her comfort zone. The self-taught artist has always had a strong sense of purpose and confidence, both in her professional life and her artistic endeavors. But nothing in her previous experience prepared her for the leap of faith that she would take after receiving an email from Disney-Hyperion.
“Disney Books contacted me about illustrating a book written by Doreen Rappaport, the author of a series of books for children,” Linda explained. “Doreen had written a biography about Wilma Mankiller and specifically wanted an illustrator from Oklahoma.”
The editors at Disney had combed art fairs in Oklahoma, researched Native American artists and eventually found Linda’s website. Impressed with her artwork, they invited her to illustrate the story. “They told me that if I would agree to illustrate the book, the job was mine,” Linda said.
“I’ve gone out on a limb a couple of times in my life, but never as much as this one,” she explained. “I’m so glad that I did, or I would have missed out on such a great experience.”
Linda specializes in scratchboard art, but this new assignment would be done exclusively in watercolor. “It was very different than most of my commissions. I’ve always worked at my own pace and chosen my own work. For this assignment, I had to submit my ideas as sketches in advance. I don’t usually do detailed pencil sketches before I create,” Linda said. She found herself drawing inspiration from her many similarities with Chief Mankiller, as both women grew up in rural Oklahoma during the same era.
While the ideas for most of the pages came easily and naturally, the assignment was not without challenges. First, there were very few photos of Wilma Mankiller as a girl or a teenager, so Linda had to use her creative talents to imagine what Wilma looked like in her younger years. Also, Linda was struggling with ideas for the last page of the book, which she felt needed to be special.
“The deadline was approaching, and I was still looking for ideas. So, I decided to call upon my faith and my Native American beliefs for inspiration. I said a prayer before I went to bed that night, and also called upon Wilma’s spirit for guidance,” Linda explained.
That night, she had a vivid dream that showed her exactly what the illustration should be—a drawing of Wilma wrapped in the flag of the Cherokee Nation in front of a beautiful Oklahoma sunset. She sketched the drawing and submitted it to her editors, who asked her to make some substantial changes to the illustration. Feeling that it was not in line with the vision, Linda held firm and asked for the illustration to remain as she envisioned. Her editors agreed, and the illustration went into the book.
After the book was published, the editors from Disney shared it with Wilma Mankiller’s family. Upon seeing the final illustration, Wilma’s son shared that he had seen the exact same image in a dream about his mother. “I feel like Wilma’s spirit guided my hand, and I am so glad that I followed my heart,” Linda adds. “I’m so proud of this book, and I feel like Wilma helped me along the way.”
Wilma’s Way Home: The Life of Wilma Mankiller was published in February 2019 to much critical and reader acclaim. Linda is a participating artist at the Red Earth Arts Festival in downtown Oklahoma City and the Cherokee Art Market in Tulsa. The Choctaw Nation’s Healthcare Center’s clinics in Durant and Talihina and their new headquarters building in Durant also feature her work. Linda is represented by Howell Gallery in Nichols Hills. Learn more at LindaKukuk.com.