Alica Murphy Wildcatt shares how her Cherokee heritage informs her art with metal
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
Alica Murphy Wildcatt is an Eastern Band of Cherokee metalsmith who’s been racking up regional and national art awards and recognition since she started molding metal in 2019. She’s dabbled in art her entire life, but there was something about jewelry fabrication that really spoke to her.
There’s a long history of Cherokee artists whose work continues to shape and influence today’s generation of contemporary basket weavers, wood carvers, mask makers, ceramicists, painters and storytellers. Alica’s work has become an outlet through which she expresses her cultural heritage and identity as a Cherokee woman. She also donates proceeds from limited edition works to important causes such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Movement (MMIW).
Alica is based in the Birdtown community of the Qualla Boundary, often referred to as the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
She shared the story of her artistic journey and how her culture influences her work with Snapdragon Journal.
Are you a full-time artist, or is it your side hustle/passion?
I have a full-time job working for my Tribe (Eastern Band of Cherokee). In the beginning, I was making things for myself and that quickly transformed from a passion to a side hustle and has now become my second full-time job. I love every minute of it.
How do you describe your art?
Often I refer to it as wearable Indigenous art.
Have you always been artistic?
Yes, from taking all the high school art classes I could, to studying graphic design in college. One of my favorite teachers ever was my high school art teacher, Don Forester. He pushed me to step outside my comfort zone on every project I started in his classroom.
What other art forms have you explored?
Painting, sculpture, drawing, ceramics, and weaving. Really just about everything over the years, even if it was a one-time thing, just to try.
What got you into jewelry, metal working?
My children were very active growing up, and as a single parent, traveling with them to events took up the majority of my time. Once my son (Corbin) was in college and my daughter (Delaney) had her drivers license, I was no longer driving my kids to wrestling, football, cheer, or dance. I had all of this free time on my hands.
I had heard about the jewelry program that Haywood Community College (HCC) had, but is was a two-year program. In the fall of 2018, I was online looking at HCC’s class offerings and I saw that they were offering Jewelry Fabrication 101.
How long have you been doing it?
I took my first class in January of 2019 (it was a Christmas gift from my family). I quickly signed up for a couple more classes. We only met once a week for three hours for 10 weeks at a time. When my fourth class was coming to an end, I had to make a decision. I wanted to spend more than three hours a week, so I started investing in my own tools and converted a room in my home to be my studio.
How is it fulfilling — as opposed to maybe some other art forms you may have tried?
I enjoy making jewelry, but if I hadn’t started making pieces that were tied to my culture, I’m not sure if it would be as fulfilling.
How is it challenging?
I try to push myself with each piece that I make, especially with my statement pieces. Every piece is different and I find myself making adjustments to sometimes scrapping things completely because they just didn’t turn out the way I envisioned.
Sometimes it’s sitting and looking at something I’m working on to try and figure out all of those stages/steps I need to take to get to that end result. It’s one of the things I love the most about metalsmithing.
What inspired the name Greybeard?
My great grandmother’s name was Polly Greybeard Ledford. Cherokees are a matirarchal society, and I want to honor that by using her maiden name.
Children took their mothers clan and kinship was traced through their mother’s family. Women were in charge of farming, property, and family. Men made political decisions for the tribe and women made social decisions for their clans. Both men and women took part in storytelling, art, music, and traditional medicine.
Do you find creating art or taking in art to be healing, and if so — how?
Absolutely! If I’ve had a hard day, I can walk into my studio and as soon as I sit down at my workbench, everything goes away.
How does your Cherokee roots inform and influence your work?
In the beginning, I found myself just making things, not really inspired by anything. I wanted to make something that had a special meaning to me. I am inspired by all of the incredible female Cherokee artists and one of my favorites is Amanda Crowe.
She was an incredible wood carver and taught wood carving in the local high school for years. In one of my classes, I wanted to make a pair of bear earrings based on Crowe’s famous bear carvings. After the bears, I made a water spider necklace (she is in our creations story). After those two pieces, I knew that sharing our stories through my work was the direction I wanted to take.
You include Cherokee language and symbols in your work, why?
Representation, in all forms, is important. Our language, both written and spoken forms, are part of what defines our culture. A few years go “word necklaces” were very popular and I wanted to try to make some. The first word that I tried was ᏣᎳᎩ (Tsalagi) or Cherokee. That quickly turned into people messaging me to do their name or a phrase in the Cherokee Syllabary.
Through this process I have been learning, and that’s one of the best feelings. To be able to learn about my culture/history/language, as I’m creating. It’s very rewarding.
Do you find that your art, or the way that you practice it, is a way of educating others?
I do! One of my popular pieces is a pair of water spider earrings. One of the first pair I made, someone said, “ewww, they are spiders, why would you make those?” I responded by telling them why I chose the water spider and why she is significant (she brought fire to the Cherokee). It happens more that’s you would think, but I enjoy it.
Does that sometimes feel like a heavy responsibility?
I think the heaviest part of it is the research and learning. So that when I make something, I know the myth/legend or the significance in the symbolism, so that I’m sharing correct information.
Sometimes, it seems like mainstream audiences (Eurocentric) aren't as aware of POC artists. Can that be frustrating? And how would one go about finding and learning about diverse artists (writers, performers, etc)?
Absolutely. It’s as if we don’t exist or only existed in the past. That there aren’t contemporary POC pushing the pace in their respective field(s).
Explore! Go to local art markets, galleries, and events. There are POC artists everywhere, making and doing great things.
Who are some artists you admire and why?
There are so many, incredible Cherokee artists that I admire! People that inspire me, challenge me and push me to make me want to do better, be better. I would love to make a list, but I’m not sure we have that kind of time, I also fear I might leave someone out.
Our Snapdragon Journal theme is "Elements" — it's intentionally open-ended. How do you interpret that?
My mind goes directly to the obvious fire, water, earth, and air. At least for me that’s the obvious answer.
How would you say “Elements" show up in your work?
The metals and stones I use come from the earth. I use fire to fabricate my pieces and water to quench the metals as I’m creating.