There was never any doubt which road local artist Janie Semple Umsted would take while she was growing up in a family loaded with talent and a Choctaw heritage that includes leadership in the tribe going back to the 1860s.
She was destined to become one of the best known artists in the area when she entered and won the Southeastern’s Curriculum Meet as a ninth grader competing against older students from throughout the area. She took top honors in the poster division and second place in figure drawing. She sold her first painting while still in high school during an art show. The oil painting was of P.A. Melton’s upholstery shop on old Market Square. That sale would be one of many in the years to follow and a career of teaching her art talents to hundreds of students.
Her mother, the former Jane French, was an artist and majored in art in college. Many cousins on both sides of the family are artists. Her sister is an artist and an older sister and brother are architects. Now her own children are artistic and grandchildren are demonstrating their abilities. Her youngest son, Aaron, is currently appearing in a Broadway Tour of the 1930s era show “Anything Goes” in Dallas.
“My earliest memory was sitting at the kitchen table and drawing with my brother when I was three or four years old,” Umsted said. “Both my parents strongly encouraged us and we started private art lessons very young.”
Her father, Dr. Allen W. Semple and his partner, were the first college-educated veterinarians in Bryan County. Both her parents are of Choctaw heritage and her great uncle, William F. Semple, was a Choctaw Chief in the 1920s, while her great- great-great grandfather, Peter Pitchlynn, was chief during the 1860s. Both families have ancestors who came to Oklahoma over the Trail of Tears.
After graduating from Durant High School, she enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, majoring in sculpture until her senior year when she discovered she could graduate a semester early if she changed her major to art education. That decision has served her well throughout her adult years and she was able to get teaching jobs wherever she lived. Being a competitive person, she entered art shows and had her work displayed in galleries all over the area.
After graduating from OU, Umsted taught art in Norman before moving to Longmont, Colo., where she taught in the Denver school system. After 13 years she moved back to Durant and attended Southeastern where she obtained a second Bachelor Degree in Elementary Education, plus a Master’s in Education. Although she says she cannot sing or play an instrument, she taught art and music in Denison before opening her own art shop in Durant.
Her love of teaching interrupted her business venture and she returned to the classroom, this time in Atoka High School where she taught art for two years. After her son was born she decided to stay closer to home and was hired as the Assistant Public Relations Director at SOSU and three months later she became the director, a position she held for the next 10 years.
“I had taught art at Durant Junior High School years earlier from 1972 -74,” she said. “I had always wanted to have that job again and I got the opportunity in 2001 and stayed until my retirement in 2007. A great place to end my teaching career.”
She connected with the love of her life after a detour that interrupted her high school romance. Her husband, Earl “Gus” Umsted was in college and they drifted apart when their budding romance was frowned upon. After both had previous marriages and she returned to Durant in the mid-eighties, they reconnected and have been married for 27 years.
“My father was a huge influence on me regarding my Choctaw heritage,” she said. “He was very proud of his heritage and encouraged my interest and had a big impact that is still with me to this day.”
Her paintings have won many awards over the years and the one that she values the most was being presented the Silver Leitzitser Award at the University of Oklahoma. The award is the second highest award from the Art Department’s Senior Class of 1969.
She has been a member of the Red River Arts Council since 2006 and serves as secretary. The organization sponsored the Painted Horses in Durant and five artists painted each one. Umsted painted the one that represents the Choctaw Nation. Currently the Council and the City of Durant are sponsoring her in an endeavor to create a life size sculpture of Rev. Dixon Durant, the founder of Durant. It will be placed at Market Square sometime this summer.
She worked to help establish the Blue and Gold Scholarship Benefit 14 years ago and each year donates a painting to be sold at auction with the proceeds going to the scholarship fund. When the dome was added to the Oklahoma Capitol Building, she made a painting of the building. Former Sen. Billy Mickle and his wife Fran purchased the painting and then turned around and presented it to Jay Paul Gumm, who had just won the election to fill the seat.
This year, Umsted has been asked to participate as an honored artist during the “Choctaw Days at the Smithsonian” in Washington D.C. The tribe was asked to participate for the first time in 2011 where they showcased their culture including art, dances, pottery making, singers and a variety of other skills. The event will last five days where Choctaw skills and traditions will be on public display.
Umsted’s work is exhibited in several galleries and her influence among her many students over the years and her pride in Choctaw heritage will be a legacy for many generations to come. Many of her paintings are exhibited for everyone to enjoy, and when her sculpture of Rev. Dixon Durant is unveiled this summer, it will be a lasting monument to her accomplishments.