Yellowjohn’s voice comes through his art

Illustrator able to express his views through what he creates on paper
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The smallest details can make all the difference for Chad Yellowjohn, a Shoshone Bannock illustrator who recently imparted his knowledge of drawing on almost two dozen members of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.

Yellowjohn made his first foray into Wisconsin on March 15 as part of the College of Menominee Nation’s MenomiCon, which allowed Menominee to celebrate fantastic and wonderful characters with workshops and activities.

Yellowjohn has been drawing since he was a child and, for a time, drawing was his primary means of communication as he mainly spoke gibberish for the first years of his life.

“I was considered a mute until the age of 7,” Yellowjohn said.

Yellowjohn, who has the nickname “Lil Coyote,” grew up in the state of Washington, and his family would take him regularly from the age of 4 to Disneyland. Seeing the various characters inspired him to draw them.

“I would have this old Garfield notepad,” Yellowjohn said. “If you look at the drawings (from the early years), they were pretty horrifying. I drew Goofy, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Peter Pan and Dumbo. That was my way to keep me entertained because I was a wild child.”

Yellowjohn noted his drawings helped his family to understand his state of mind, whether he was sad, angry, happy or a myriad of other emotions. However, it was when the movie “Space Jam” came out that he started to really take off as an artist.

“It was my favorite basketball player and my favorite characters playing basketball with him,” Yellowjohn said. “I would also watch ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ and ‘The Goofy Movie,’” Yellowjohn said, noting he started out pausing the movies to do his drawings before eventually developing the skills to draw freehand. “Goofy is my favorite character because he’s a single dad who just wants to be a part of his son’s life, and that’s something that I strive to be one day.”

Soon, Yellowjohn started drawing his own characters. He chuckled as he recalled one of his more interesting illustrations was of himself, Bugs Bunny and Mario from Super Mario Bros. saving “the love of his life — and it was Britney Spears.”

The first big art job Yellowjohn had was drawing for the Salish Tribe of Montana, which was reviving its native language. He said he would create illustrations to accompany the stories they told.

“They had a language conference, and they would perform those illustrations, so it was almost like my illustrations on set,” Yellowjohn said.

Yellowjohn went on to college at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At first, he struggled and dropped out, spending some time working at the Spokane International Airport creating Indigenous illustrations and drawing caricature portraits, among other things. He eventually returned to the institute after seeing some of the friends he made there grow as artists. He earned an associate’s degree in cinematic arts with a minor in studio arts.

“Today, I don’t know how to speak about Native issues verbally,” Yellowjohn said. “The only way I can do it is the same way I communicated with my mom, is I communicate with my art on a certain issue. It’s also an emotional release. When there’s something cooped up inside me, that’s my way of releasing it.”

For those who seek to become illustrators, Yellowjohn encourages Indigenous artists to do it and sees it as carrying on a tradition, noting a lot of tribes tell stories through art.

“It’s not as much of a hobby,” Yellowjohn said. “It’s like a culture, a way to communicate with other tribes and to communicate with ourselves. Artists have a voice as well, but most do it verbally.”