Brush with history
Over the past month, a portfolio collection of his work has been published in hardcover.
He’s taught workshops at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
And he’s been invited to tour New Zealand with a handful of Native American artists.
“I thought I was pretty much at the peak of my dreams as far as becoming an artist,” says the 60-year-old Flett, “but I have come to find out I have a long way to go.”
His book, “George Flett: Ledger Art,” rolled off the presses in early June. The impressive volume is published by New Media Ventures, a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review.
One of the foremost Indian artists in the Northwest, Flett lives on the Spokane Reservation about four miles outside Wellpinit, Wash.
While he is skilled in sculpture, bead working and silversmithing, the book focuses on his two-dimensional work.
Ledger art, a traditional American Indian art form, dates back to the mid-1800s when Plains Indians drew pictographic representations of heroic deeds and sacred visions on pages torn from U. S. Army ledger books.
“It was work done by many Native artists when they were confined to forts and mission schools because used ledger paper was frequently the only material they had,” says Flett.
“Ledger art is thought of by many as historical art,” says Sue Bradley, owner of Tinman Gallery in Spokane. “Most people are not aware that it is being practiced today by a number of very fine Native American artists.”
Flett honors the traditions of ledger art while incorporating his own contemporary, mixed-media collage techniques. He bases all his paintings on Spokane Indian legends, history and cultural events.
In addition to using balance sheets, Flett incorporates other types of antique paper including Western Union telegrams, Congressional Records and stock shares.
The painting “At the Parade” features a stylized image of a traditionally dressed Native woman sitting astride her decorated pony. It is richly layered over a 1921 North American Light and Power Co. stock certificate.
Flett got the idea for the painting after looking through old family photographs.
“I came across a number of pictures of the Spokane Fair dated 1910,” he says. “I saw one of a woman dressed in her finest regalia riding a horse and the painting came out of that image.”
When making art, Flett often listens to traditional music relating to stories he is depicting.
One of his newest ledger paintings, “Horse Stealing Song,” is a complicated collage piece that uses many artistic techniques.
The painting tells the story of a warrior who returns to camp with horses he may have acquired from a raid on another tribe or U.S. Army outpost.
As with “At the Parade,” it features multiple layers.
“George pushes the multimedia technique much farther than I’ve seen other ledger artists do,” says Scott Thompson of Spokane, the essayist for “George Flett: Ledger Artist.”
In one picture, Flett often incorporates photographs and transfers, embossing, acrylic paints and colored pencil.
“He seems to have unbounded energy and enthusiasm in trying new things,” says Thompson, a retired art educator.
His painting also reflects a vivid use of color including pinks, light blues, purples, greens and yellows.
“The positioning of those colors next to each other makes them very unique and very Spokane (Tribe),” Thompson says.
Embossing adds another dimension to the flat surface.
“George experiments with deep, sharp and intricate embossing of spirit visions,” says gallery owner Bradley.
“His work is not only visually exciting,” adds Thompson, “it is tactically stimulating. You want to touch these things and run your hand over the embossing and thick acrylic paint.”
Soon after the book was published, Flett traveled to Washington, D.C., where he led three ledger art workshops at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“People at the museum were absolutely stunned and excited that art this beautiful and vibrant exists,” says Bradley. “We sold a lot of his books and work there.”
Before going to D.C., Flett was invited to travel to New Zealand with a small group of artists from the prestigious Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts in Pendleton, Ore.
After returning from his trip to the nation’s capital, Flett says he took another look at what he wants to do next with his art – and decided to stay home.
“My priorities are to be around Indian people, learn the legends and produce art in my studio,” he says.
So, instead of traveling halfway around the world, Flett will be in his studio on the Spokane Reservation, “doing what my heart tells me to do.”