Murv Jacob and Debbie Duvall

The Art of Collaboration


 Jake Cornwell

Oklahoma Author

Tucked away in the middle of the 500 block of North Muskogee Avenue—a stone's throw from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma—Murv Jacob confines himself in his studio and slings a saturated brush in spellbound wizardry.  He is a pyrographer in paint, a molder of muddy earth, an artisan of archeology.  Murv wears a floppy, sweat-stained Boston Red Sox hat flat upon his head and occasionally smokes a hand-rolled cigarette.  From a wooden easel, he transforms blank foundations into rich and vibrant pieces of art.  Colors, colors, colors practically run off the office walls and stretch onto the street.  Debbie Duvall sits across the room in a cross-legged crouch and plucks chords from her acoustic guitar. Long locks of mahogany caress the Coke bottle shape of her six-string.  Her pleasant voice laments for Mary Magdalene, the tortured and weak, and longs for a perfect "Dream World." Foot and road traffic still stirs along this antiquated section of town.  A friend knocks on the window and waves as he passes by.  The paneled room is darted in chromatic images and histories of Native American lore: high atop a tree, an opossum pulls a limb like a taut bow; an otter spears a fish at the shore of a river under a lemony-washed sky; and native and animal people circle a fireside in a black opal night.  Strewn about cutouts of other mythical creatures: Ji-Stu the Rabbit, Bear, Raccoon, and Terrapin (to name a few)—wear earth-toned sashes and quietly rest against the wall.  Shelves filled with clay creatures, some wearing indigenous clothing, guard a wooden sign that reads: "JACOB AND DUVALL: The Grandmother Stories—7 Tales of Ancient Cherokees." A picture of a starry-eyed woman hangs next to a thumb-tacked black and white photograph of famous Native American artist Cecil Dick—Murv's now-deceased longtime mentor.  The woman is Debbie.  Artist, Murv Jacob, and author/singer-songwriter, Deborah "Debbie" Duvall, are more than a couple;  they are a collaboration.

Today, they coincidentally wear matching shirts, hers purple, his black.  A generation ago, Murv met Debbie.  He says, "I was delivering paintings to the Cherokee Heritage Center about 21 years ago, and the girl that was writing it up and documenting it for the delivery was Debbie.  And we honest to God fell in love within about 30 seconds." The two fell oozy goozy for one another and found themselves a family.  Jacob laughs, "It was kind of like being the Brady Bunch without being nerds."

As Debbie and Murv's coupling evolved, so did their careers.  Murv remembers, "She was in the archives and found a drawing that she thought was [my mentor] Cecil Dick's."  Jacob turned the image over and couldn't believe his eyes.  He says:

On the back of it was one of my drawings.  But the drawing was like that weird carving that got [Georges] Braque and [Pablo] Picasso doing cubism....I looked at it and realized that I had sat there doodling while I was talking to [Cecil].  And it just triggered everything in my brain.  Everything just came spilling out, like when you hit a parking meter with a ball peen hammer—everything comes spilling out. 

For a time, Murv worked on a series of books with author Gayle Ross as her illustrator.   The discovery proved pivotal: "I wouldn't have been able to illustrate them without this drawing [falling] back into my lap."  As work with Ross declined, the award-winning artist looked for another writer.   One day, Murv turned to Debbie and said, "I need some stories."  Within a short period of time she was quick to document several Cherokee myths.  The Kansas native recalls, "All of a sudden, here's a stack of stories in my lap.... And now we've worked on [twelve] book projects together."

Debbie Duvall is no stranger to literature.  She has soaked up countless books since she was a little girl.  As a result, penning prose came to her naturally.  Her nascent talent landed her a gig on the high school newspaper and before long universities were calling.  She says, "I've been writing all my life.  I was offered a journalism scholarship, which I refused, because at the time I was a big-time war protesting hippie.  And I didn't want anything to do with the establishment whatsoever. So I refused the scholarship."  Though Debbie always was a writer, she didn't consider herself a writer: "I never had seriously considered publishing anything," she says, "because you just don't think of yourself as being able to be published.  It's just like, 'Ahhhhhh, that's not something I can do.'"  Debbie eventually overcame her apprehension.  She's still an antiwar child at heart, but she now embraces her ability as a wrangler of words.  She got her start as a published book writer with Arcadia Publishing in 1999.  In about one year's time she had two books hit the shelves: The Cherokee Nation and Tahlequah, Images of America series (October 21, 1999) and The Oral History of Tahlequah and the Cherokee Nation, Voices of America series, (November 14, 2000). 

Since her millennial debut, Debbie has held a full-time job and written twelve books with Murv Jacob—all in her free time.  She comments on her writing process: "I'll be struck with a notion I want to write right now.   It's not like I sit down and do it every day, which I wish I could."  Duvall may not write on a daily regimen, but her time spent is extremely productive.  She has published fourteen books in thirteen years; eleven are children's books featuring Rabbit the trickster and his many adventures.  Rabbit and several other animal characters are rooted in Cherokee and other Native American legends.  Duvall says, "A lot of our books that we did together are based on old religions that are already there.   The characters were already established."