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Maddie Sanders reclaims her roots

Maddie Sanders (Communication Design, ’21)

Maddie Sanders stands beside mural of plant illustrations and descriptions

When she craved something sweet, Maddie Sanders (Communication Design, ’21) says her grandmother would send her to the “ginormous honeysuckle bush” behind their family’s garden in Checotah, Oklahoma. Sanders leaned into the saccharine memory as a muse for her collaborative art project, “Reclaiming Roots,” a black-and-white sketched collection of twelve Indigenous plants that’s on display in FLC’s Student Union through Spring 2022.   

Thanks to a grant from the Soul of Nations Foundation’s Indigenous Arts Expansion Initiative, Sanders not only got to explore her connection to plants but also connected with Indigenous youth from Africa. The effort is part of the Indigenous International Green Architecture Project, which Sanders explains is centered around environmental stability.

Illustration of mint plant“I saw this project as a good time to utilize my knowledge of plants and what I learned as a kid,” says Sanders, a member of the Muskogee Nation. “I could pay homage to my ancestors who lived the meaning of environmental stability and bring that into a more modern light.”

Illustration of mullein plan

Out of 150 applicants, Sanders was chosen in May 2020 to represent the United States as the lead artist. Sanders enlisted the help of her friend, Shasta Dazen (Public Health, ’21), a White Mountain Apache tribal member and fellow FLC graduate. Together, Sanders and Dazen brainstormed different plants from their childhoods and home communities in Oklahoma and Arizona, respectively. All dozen plants celebrate the medicinal properties flaunted by each, with special emphasis on the herbs and roots their mothers and grandmothers would brew into teas to treat everything from anxiety to arthritis.

Throughout the year-and-a-half-long project, Sanders and Dazen met virtually every month with young artists from Lagos, Nigeria, to discuss the plants they’d chosen. Sanders says it was interesting to see African plants she’d never heard of, while sharing plants from the Southwest that surprised the Nigerian students.

“But then we would always relate over the fact that they also grew up making tea, too, from their certain plants,” says Sanders. 

Sanders dabbles in many art forms, from beading to fashion, but graphic design is her main passion, just like her 74-year-old grandfather, Vernon. In the 1970s, he worked at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where Sanders flocked after high school. She transferred to FLC in 2018.

Illustration of slippery elm plant

“At FLC, I got that hands-on experience you need for the real world,” says Sanders. “I learned how to use what I was learning in the classroom and, through my internship with FLC’s Marketing Department, I got to use that in real-time.” 

As a student intern, Sanders worked with Art Director Anna McBrayer. In January 2021, Sanders created a mural for the Mac Lab and is plotting another masterpiece for Reed Library’s new Dev Space (a professional development space for students).

“I told her I felt the need for more art on campus,” says Sanders. “Art helps people in their day-to-day lives. Even a small impact, like a mural, can bring a community together, create conversation, and boost people’s lives. It can bring back memories and create new ones, too.”

For more on Sanders' work, check out her website, maddiesanders.com, and follow her Instagram feed, @maddie.sanderrs.

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