On Jan. 23, 2013, after a very long battle against diabetes, Spokane Native American artist George Flett died at 66. He was a pioneer in the world of art, having almost singlehandedly revived the traditional art form of ledger painting.
A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Art in 1966 here in Santa Fe, and from the University of Colorado in 1968, George also had a career riding broncs and bulls in Indian rodeo. Those riders usually get knocked around and get their share of dislocated shoulders, etc., so George opted to pursue his interests in the art world.
He was guest artist at Dartmouth University at one point, a great honor in itself, one he shared with his friends and titans of the Native art world Fritz Scholder and T.C. Cannon. His book, “George Flett: Ledger Art,” was published in 2007 by New Media Ventures, a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review.
I was privileged to buy and sell his art in Santa Fe during the last two years of his life. He was always polite and unassuming, almost shy and reticent. He collected other Native artists voraciously, and I always let him take whatever he wanted from my gallery back to Wellpinit, seat of the Spokane Nation, because I always knew he would make good on his trades. When I ran low on his signed prints, I would send him a big check and never once did he let me down on what he shipped back.
During his last few months, I had sent him some large Civil War documents for him to do his art work. Most of the Civil War generals ended up in the Northern Plains in the so-called Indian Wars of the 1870s, and often George depicted Plains warriors wearing Civil War jackets with epaulets and brandishing the slightly curved sabers of the Union Army. He never finished those drawings. There were several other unfinished projects, like books signed by the artist that he intended to send to me with drawings in the frontispiece, as the pain and inevitability of death overtook him, after a decade of dialysis three times a week.
He had an incredible will to live and an unstoppable intent to create and preserve Native traditions, especially the stories, memories, and heroes of his Spokane Tribe. I miss his enlightened soul and his gentle way of dealing. His efforts to create and sustain the Prairie Chicken Festival through both paintings and through dancing must be mentioned and fondly remembered.
When someone great passes, I often think of them walking along a beach with large and menacing dark waves coming in, lapping at their feet, then their knees, and the water up to a point retreats and then comes in again, eventually overtaking them and pulling them into the Great Beyond.
Especially with diabetes and the process of dialysis, this is an apt comparison. May his memory, his good deeds and his great art works live on.