I am blessed to live in a community with many talented artists. One of the artists this community can and should boast about is Marvel, IDW, and Valiant comic book artist Jeffrey Veregge. Thankfully, we are both geeks, so we've gotten on well since we first met. Even more thankfully, Jeffrey is a wonderful guy who did me the great favor of speaking at Northwest Indian College (where I teach) for my Pacific Northwest Native Art History class.
We are on the modern art portion of class, right now, because I know many talented Native people currently practicing art, and I don't want my students to think of Native art all in terms of the past. Absolutely, the history of art is a huge part of the inspiration to create for members of this tribe--that cultural, ancestral tie--but it's not the only inspiration. Native art is alive and well. It is not history; though it has a long history. It is not stagnant, but varied. Jeffrey Veregee is an example of an artist who has strong ties to home, but whose art is a very real expression of his complex personhood.
The Early Stages
Jeffrey began his journey as a young geek, wearing Spock ears around the rez, even being teased for his geeky obsessions. At 23, he was thinking about a job with the FBI; he went through the arduous background checks and extensive questioning. The FBI told him that, if he was serious about a position in their ranks, college had to be in his horizon. This opened the door for Jeffrey to think about what he wanted to pursue in college. When he went over it in his head, though, the same thing kept coming up: art.
He started off at the Art Institute wanting to get into special effects or action figure design (which he did pursue for a short time), but his path took him somewhere else. Design called to him, and he had a knack for it.
"Breaking the Rules the Right Way"
Jeffrey grew up around many local artists who had a knack for design. He mentioned local elder Jake Jones (recently deceased) as someone who he looked up to. He thought about those people whose art he grew up seeing. He didn't want them to think he took shortcuts, that he didn't understand Native art. But he also wanted to break the rules a little, have his own style.
He approached Tsimshian artist David Boxley to learn more about Native design. "I wanted to break the rules the right way," he told those assembled at his talk. He combined what he learned from Boxley on Tsimshian formline and design with what he learned at the Art Institute. He refers to his work as a hybrid of graphic design and Pacific Northwest Native design elements, or "Salish Geek."
After school, he worked for 12 years at Market Works, where he was able to learn about branding and marketing. He worked his way from an intern to studio design manager, but he wasn't completely happy.
He started painting again, gave up his steady job and paycheck and took the plunge into full-time artistry. His work didn't come into the limelight over night, but through much hard work he was able to start getting it out to the world. His art was featured in sets for the Twilight movie. He won a few art contests with his mesh of Native-influenced themes and Matisse/Picasso style graphics, but he hadn't quite found his style yet.
Finding Himself in Art
Jeffrey approached a pop-art gallery in Seattle, selling his idea of "Coast Salish Star Wars." He was disappointed when his first approach to Lucas Films was passed up, but not long after he created his now extremely popular Batman and Spiderman graphics (featured, not long after, at the Seattle Art Museum).
In these designs, Jeffrey found something that spoke to his heritage and his own unique design-style. He played with formline shapes, feathers and negative and positive spaces, while also integrating stances, colors and movement that represented the nature of the heroes and stories he was designing. And the designs didn't just speak to his roots; they spoke to the world of geekdom.
Jeffrey has now done at least 100 comic book graphics/covers (IDW, Valiant and Marvel among them). He's done murals, graphics for major companies, and special designs for many a convention.
He's been chosen for several major projects this year, which I will not spoil for him in this blog post. His design for Ironman was shared and appreciated (and later worn) by Robert Downey Jr. (something that brought his proud wife to tears). He's worked with George Takei, and the daughter of Nemoy.
Currently, Veregge is working on his own comic book hero, who will be the first ever S'Klallam comic book hero to hit the world. As someone who has been privileged enough to read the early stages of this book, I have to say that I cannot wait for him to be able to bring his own book (front to back, words, design and all) to fruition. As a mother of S'Klallam children, I can only thank Jeffrey for giving them a S'Klallam hero to read.
The Roots of His Passion
Jeffrey's love of his tribe, his family and life is a big source of pride and passion. He teared up a bit when he spoke about his tribe. He said, choked up, "I'm so proud of where I'm from. I try to always say I'm Port Gamble S'Klallam. You all are the best part of what I do."
Finishing his talk, Jeffrey hit home the importance of persistence. He iterated that he only became famous when he stopped caring more about the paycheck than about doing something that brought him joy. He also cautioned those present about focusing on failure. "Don't be afraid of failure [...] We get one shot on this earth, so don't waste it. [...] Failure is a stepping stone to success," Veregge reassured the gathered students.
At the end of his talk, he joked that he wished he could tell that young, geeky kid with Spock ears, who was often teased, that he'd one day have a beautiful wife who would sit with him and watch Star Trek, that he'd be getting paid to recreate the characters he loved. Over and over again, he reiterated how blessed he felt he was, both by God and by the love of his wife, family and children, who support and cheer him on.
Veregge is certainly a talented artist, but he's also just a great human being. His work speaks for itself, but hearing his story was a joy for all those gathered, and an inspiration to those with dreams as big and obtainable as those Veregge has achieved.
H.M Jones is the author of B.R.A.G Medallion Honor and NIEA finalist book Monochrome, its prequel Fade to Blue, the Adela Darken Graphic Novellas, Al Ravien's Night, The Immortals series, and several short stories.