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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Renowned Indian artist George Flett dies at 66

American Indian artist George Flett, of the Spokane Tribe, traces the outline of a Prairie Chicken Dancer on a strip of ledger paper fixed on canvas at his studio in Wellpinit, Wash., in 2007. (File)

Nationally recognized artist and Spokane Tribe member George Flett died Wednesday afternoon at the age of 66.

Flett had diabetes since the early 1980s and was undergoing dialysis three times a week, said his daughter, Regina Flett.

“His heart wasn’t strong enough for dialysis,” his daughter said. “So he chose to come home.”

His other children are George “Rooster” Flett Jr. and Phillip George Flett, and he has four grandchildren.

Flett was skilled in sculpture, beadworking and silversmithing, but was perhaps best known for his ledger art.

Ledger painting is a traditional American Indian art form dating 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.

Flett based his mixed-media paintings on Spokane Indian legends, history and cultural events.

“Ledger art is a way for each tribe to preserve their legends and stories and tell their history,” said Sue Bradley, owner of the Tinman Gallery in the Garland District, which features Flett’s work. “That’s why George did it. He wanted the stories to live on.”

Flett often went into his studio in Wellpinit and put on his favorite Indian music, Bradley said. The images and the spirits would come to him and he would paint.

“He really lives in both worlds,” Bradley said. “What we see – the material world – and in the spiritual world.”

He received degrees from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1966 and from the University of Colorado in 1968. His book, “George Flett: Ledger Art,” was published in 2007 by New Media Ventures, a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review.

Flett studied with other American Indian art icons, including T.C. Cannon and Kevin Red Star, and trained under Fritz Scholder.

He successfully modernized the traditional ledger art paintings, Bradley said.

“He was an extremely talented artist who was passionate about making art,” she said. “For him, the important part was the creating of the art and the image.”

He is a cousin of Cliff J. SiJohn, a Coeur d’Alene Tribe elder who emceed the horse parade at Julyamsh, the yearly powwow hosted by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. SiJohn died Christmas Eve at the age of 67. Flett helped organize the art show portion of the powwow.

He was remembered Thursday as a kind, attentive and soft-spoken man.

“I never heard George say a negative word about anybody or anything,” Bradley said. “Nobody ever had a critical or negative word about him.”

His artwork has been widely displayed around the Inland Northwest and nationwide at galleries in Santa Fe, Oklahoma, Arizona and Montana. He taught workshops at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

“The culture was there to share,” she said. “He wasn’t in artistic competition with people. He mentored quite a few younger artists.”

Over the past 20 years, he traveled to shows across the country with fellow artist and close friend Ric Gendron, sharing motel rooms and bad meals in the middle of nowhere. Gendron said Flett was an inspiration.

“He was not only like an older brother, he was a mentor, he was a teacher for me,” Gendron said. “He was, you know, my best friend.”

Flett also was an inspiration to other American Indian artists throughout the Northwest and beyond, Gendron said. His death will leave a huge void, not just in the art community, but the Indian community, where he was involved in more than just art.

“He will always be with not just me, but everyone that knew him,” he said. “Everybody loved him. It’s just a great loss.”