Steven Lighthill, an enrolled descendent of the Karuk tribe of northern California, began his lifelong career in art when he began his studies at the age of 16, taking courses in painting, sculpture, and jewelry during high school in northern California. After a tour of active duty with the U.S. Air Force, he went back to college to study design, earning a degree in fine art. He began his career in art as an illustrator for the Air Force. He also accepted freelance commissions for portraits and other work, including designing slates for the local television station, and logos for other businesses. His illustrations and designs have been on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the Chicago Art Institute, the Library of Congress, as well as other venues.
Lighthill currently works as the Visual Communications Manager and Public Outreach Manager at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, where he is responsible for Armstrong’s exhibit and outreach programs and serves as an art director for the center. He also serves as the center’s printing officer.
The tribal lands of the Karuk people are located alongside the Klamath River from the town of Orleans in the west to Yreka in the east. The tribal headquarters are located in Happy Camp, California, on Highway 96. He grew up hearing stories about his ancestors from his father and grandmother, visiting Karuk territories whenever possible. His father had a career in the Air Force so the visits were few and far between. As an adult he has had more frequent visits to the river and continues to bring his children and grandchildren whenever possible.
Lighthill said, “I am proud of my heritage and brought as much of it into my work environment as possible. The fact that I have Native American ancestry has helped guide my choices in my life and career in an effort to return to as close to my roots as possible.”
As concerns STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) versus STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) education, he said: “While I work for a highly technical and scientific organization, I am blessed to have a career in my chosen field with my dream agency. I am able to create meaningful designs and artwork as well as help shape agency policies on graphic standards. As such, STEAM is a much more viable education program than STEM in my opinion. Of course I am biased because of my chosen profession.
My advice to young Native Americans would be to concentrate on what your dreams are, STEM or STEAM, and work to realize those dreams. NASA, and other technical organizations, use a variety of skills to fulfill their missions and just because you are not an engineer or scientist does not mean you cannot work for them. I am living proof that anyone can work for NASA. Concentrate on becoming good at your chosen profession, study, attend courses, work diligently to improve your skills. Do not rely on natural talent, learn! I did not start advancing my career until I realized that talent alone would not get me where I wanted to go.”
Image Credit: Courtesy of Steve Lighthill