He Shares Many Horses

STORY BY KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & o an outsider, the Spokane Indian Reservation can seem cryptic, inexplicable. Like the sign on the tree, the sign shaped like a directional arrow, pointing down an anonymous and empty road announcing: Horse Racing. With no one around to stop and ask, the imagination gallops through the present and the past.

The paved road has no name, at least none marked on a signpost, but everyone on the rez knows it as Flett Loop.

"When Elijah Road starts to bend back this way, there is a road that takes off to the left. That's Flett Loop," says the man directing a visitor to the studio of the artist George Flett, just outside Wellpinit. "If you can't find his house, just ask anyone out there -- they are all his cousins."

The westerly bending of Flett Loop draws a bow across a great expanse of meadow, vibrant in many shades of green here in deepening summer. Some of the greens are so electric it's a surprise sparks don't fly when they touch in the breeze. There is a circle of reedy plants so smoky dark it creates the illusion the sun is not shining on that particular spot even though a glance reveals no cloud in the sky.

Houses jump up along the sweep of the road as if they had been scattered like seed.

No horses are visible this day. But merely turn onto the dirt road that winds its way to the double-wide mobile home that the artist George Flett has converted into his studio and suddenly there are horses. Elongated, stylized horses in vibrant shades of green and blue and red strut or gallop or walk across paintings and prints and ledger drawings.

Two shaped from wood are affixed to the wall outside.

"George has always had horses. He grew up riding horses, and they fit into his art," says the painter Ric Gendron, a longtime friend of Flett's.

The screen door slaps shut against its wooden frame as George Flett, weathered and wiry and dressed in blue denim and cowboy boots, emerges from his studio with a smile that lifts decades away from his 60 years.

"All artists do the same thing," he says. "We do what we know."

Flett knows horses. "When I was a child, my older brothers would capture wild horses," he says.

He has lived around horses all his life and knows their moods. Flett also knows the history of his people in a way few others do. He spent 11 years working for the Spokane Tribal Museum, often reuniting families with artifacts that had been taken from the reservation by trade or by manifest destiny in a previous century. As the objects were repatriated, he spent hours listening to elders tell the stories that were woven to these pieces.

"I really felt fortunate to have that happen to me. It may never happen to an Indian person again," he says.

Flett knows art, formally trained at the Institute for American Indian Artists at Santa Fe, graduating in the rock-star class of 1966, and fearlessly mastering a wide variety of techniques -- silversmithing, oils, watercolor, embossing, printmaking -- supporting himself full time as an artist since 1983.

All these rivulets -- the horses, the specific histories of his people, his technical mastery -- have merged to create a flood of images during the last decade where Flett has taken a simple, almost journalistic medium known as ledger art and imbued it with the power to flow across time and culture.

His paintings are at once mundane and magical, specific and spiritual. The elongated arch of the many horses seems almost child-simple, yet they are hauntingly powerful and detailed. The eye can sink into the paintings, reaching a deep past of the Spokane people while never leaving the present day.

His work has reached a pinnacle of sorts with the recent publication of a monograph entitled simply George Flett, Ledger Art, and a two-week invitation last month to conduct workshops at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

"This has been a pretty good year," Flett says with a humorous glint in his eye and a smile. He sees it, however, not as some peak of accomplishment but as a launching point for new adventures.

The Artist George Flett Sets Off On His Journey

A teenaged George Flett, dark hair combed close to his head and dressed in his finest long-sleeved shirt and best trousers, begins a quest to the south. Carrying his slim bundle of colored pencils and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he rides a leaf-green war horse clear of the fragrant pines and down the steep grade towards Little Falls Dam on his journey to Santa Fe.

OK, the above paragraph may not be entirely literal, but it is clear the voyage to Santa Fe as a young man was a giant one for Flett, who had almost never left the cozy blanket of family tucked around Flett Loop.

"There was a time," he says, "when just going the four or five miles up the road to Wellpinit to get groceries seemed like a long trip. So you can imagine..."

It's hard to say if the Fletts have lived around those grassy meadows since the wayback, but certainly they have spent generations there since the creation of the reservation in 1881.

At the Institute for American Indian Artists, Flett was in the first graduating class. He was among the wave of talent that would burst out of Santa Fe and join the turbulent contemporary art world of the mid-1960s. The goal at Santa Fe was not to create Indian artists, but rather artists who were Indians. Quite a number of that first graduating class went on to make a splash, Flett and others point out.

It was a time of bold experiment and radical rethinking of the past. Flett, however, chose a quieter path. His early interest in multiple media led him to a museum job in Missouri.

"That worked out good for what I wanted to do in my life," Flett says. "I was introduced to artifacts. I was the chief artist. I did the dioramas, so I learned about feather work and bead work."

By 1972, after a couple of years in St. Joseph, Mo., Flett returned home to Wellpinit where he spent the next 11 years doing museum work for the Spokane Tribe. His understanding of his own culture and its history deepened in the imperceptible way that a water seep can patiently fill a pool.

The Tribe was tracking down and reacquiring bags and baskets and medicine bundles and other artifacts that had wound up in museums off the rez. When specific family ownership could be determined -- through bead patterns, for instance, or historical record -- the objects were returned to individuals.

This was a happy duty often handled by Flett.

"That worked out well," Flett says. "I visited with tribal elders. We would visit for quite some time as they told stories. And as I progressed as an artist, I was able to utilize those stories."

Since first leaving Flett Loop after graduating Wellpinit High School, Flett has never stopped traveling the road to shape and refine his vision.

The Artist George Flett Displays His Materials

The deep red double-wide where Flett shows up for work every day -- sometimes before the sun -- is packed inside with an astonishing array of art in the making.

What used to be the kitchen is a cramped metal shop where he works silver into bracelets and into popular rodeo belt buckles that helped support him when he launched into an art career at age 36.

He has an easel and a table full of acrylic paints dominating the front room where he is furiously at work on a piece he's entering in Julyamsh later this month.

"I'm pretty competitive. I want to win that one or at least place," he says.

Down the hall is a room devoted to watercolor. A bedroom is now a station where he can frame his work. A print-making press crouches over here, a press for embossing designs into his work is over there.

He has bundles of ledgers -- the receipt books for mining companies and the like, some dating back to the 1890s -- as well as yellowing Western Union telegraphs, ration coupons, maps and pages from the Congressional Record in the 1930s.

He doesn't jump from one thing to another. Flett is a whirlwind, using all these media and more in the same frame to create layers of sensibility ranging from hard facts to haunting dreams.

"I think what is unusual about George's work is there are many stories in many time frames all going on at once," says Sue Bradley, owner of the Tinman Gallery in Spokane where Flett's work is often showcased. Bradley is also the impetus behind the recent book of Flett's work.

"George does talk about layering," says Scott Thompson, a longtime art educator in Spokane who has published a book about early examples of ledger art among Plateau Indians of the 1870s. "He sees layers not only as layers of time -- from ancestral to the current day to future generations -- but he also sees spiritual layers."

Flett's works are layered with, for instance, archival photographs of tribal elders and leaders, often the very ones referenced in the art. He will emboss images of horses or warriors or encampments that add, in his words, the dreams or thoughts of people in the frame.

"We recognize that sound -- the spoken voice or prayer or song -- and smoke or incense are all things that can be perceived but are not things that can be possessed or grasped. George's work is like that," Thompson says.

The Artist George Flett Squares Accounts

When it comes to explaining ledger art, a number of people repeat what we can call the Fort Marion Story. This is a tale with tragic and romantic overtones where Plains Indians warriors, captured and imprisoned in distant and alien Florida, were given papers by a certain Capt. Pratt and encouraged to draw scenes from their lives.

Indians had long painted such scenes on hides or tipis or clothing. As their culture was being consumed by white expansion, these objects were becoming curiosities, collectibles. At Fort Marion, Capt. Pratt's intention was to help Indians make a little money as artists by using ledger papers easily available at forts or agencies.

Fort Marion aside, it may be more the usual way of things that Indians began using ledger papers spontaneously, recognizing an easier and more portable medium than animal hides.

"Indian art always changes. If native people 500 years ago had acrylic paints, they would have used them, too," says Flett's artist friend Ric Gendron.

In any event, ledger art blossomed across the Plains throughout the 1800s and gradually reflected the profound changes occurring in tribal culture. War and conquest scenes were replaced by more everyday moments.

The Spokanes have no record of this sort of historic ledger art, but tribal members have long documented meaningful events in pictographs on rock faces throughout Eastern Washington.

Flett, bursting with stories to be told and remembered, has used ledger art as his messenger.

He has a work titled "Comes Charging with His Captured Saber," a seemingly simple, linear scene of a warrior in fighting regalia galloping his war horse. A cavalry saber in scabbard is held in the right hand, trailing out behind.

But tilt your head sideways and take a closer look at the minimal text on the yellowing ledger paper where Flett has drawn this scene. It's a list enigmatically titled "Out of the City Members." First name on the list, in the handsome penmanship of long ago, is Gen. George Wright. Next to it, Flett has embossed the figure of the warrior in a more aggressive posture.

"I was talking to a relative of mine in the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and his family has a saber that maybe was captured at the Battle of Steptoe Butte," Flett says.

And suddenly it all came together. He wanted to do a painting of a local warrior, Flett says, when he remembered the story about the actual saber. The Indians' humiliation of Lt. Col. Edward Steptoe led to Wright's punitive campaign and hence the hair-raising choice of paper atop which he created the drawing.

The embossing, as it often does in his works, Flett says, reveals the thoughts of the man as he rides along. Or his dreams.

Flett's choices of ledger papers often highlight white exploitation of resources or subjugation of Indians, Bradley says.

"George takes these and puts the Indians' own legend back on top. You have a resonance you don't get with a blank canvas," she says.

In this way, Flett tells many stories about the Spokanes. Bradley cites another powerful ledger where Flett painted a courting scene atop a page from the Congressional Record.

"He put this intimate pledge between two people on top of Congress saying, 'We're going to take this, and we're going to take this, and we're going to take this,'" Bradley says.

Sometimes Flett will tear the ledger papers into shapes like bison or elk hide, riffing on the roots of the art form itself.

"The spirit moves him, and this is what comes out," Bradley says. "George is in this world, he's as real as this room, but he is also living in the painting."

The Artist George Flett Journeys On In Finest Regalia

Don't think Flett lives in the past or paints merely nostalgia. He is a savvy, hardworking artist who values connections and Websites. And his work is nothing if not current and vibrant.

It would also be wrong to leave an impression of Flett as a creator of war-like images. The Spokanes were a largely peaceful people, and many of Flett's ledgers reflect a tranquil rhythm of life.

One of his favorite topics is the history and evolution of the Prairie Chicken Dance. Flett has long sponsored what may be the biggest Prairie Chicken Dance competition on the powwow circuit at the Labor Day powwow at Wellpinit. Dancers come from far and wide to compete.

In the ledgers, Flett's dancers are dynamic and confident, almost strutting across the frame, their bustles and other dance regalia drawn with fine accuracy and detail.

Flett says he and a relative, Cliff SiJohn of the Coeur d'Alenes, hope to expand the inventory of traditional dance later this month at Julyamsh.

"We have this very old traditional dance. It's called the Horse Tail Dance," Flett says. The boy who helped capture wild horses, and who still sees them as he rides the reservation, adds, "Not many people see a wild stud stallion move his mares around. On TV you see the stallion in the lead, but it's not like that."

Through the Horse Tail Dance, "we will see it again, and I am anxious to see all the old regalia."

Reflecting on the narrative of his art, how it relates specifically to his people, Flett says, "To be an Indian artist -- in some ways we are like historians."

He hopes that even decades from now, Spokane Tribe members can see his ledgers and connect with their history. Flett is bursting with ideas and projects to get all these stories down, he says.

"Being a full-time artist, it's an obsession," Ric Gendron says. "I talk to George about it. Most people in the real world look forward to retirement. But when you are an artist, you don't retire ... you die, and then you're done."

Sitting on a tall stool in his studio, Flett echoes this thought.

"I couldn't be anything else. I retired 30 years ago when I became a full-time artist."

Making Book on GEORGE Flett

Creating a high-quality book to celebrate the ledger art of George Flett became a labor of appreciation and respect for unlikely companies in Spokane -- an offshoot of the daily paper and an obscure high-end compositor.

Sue Bradley is an early admirer of Flett's work, showcasing the Spokane tribal artist often at her Tinman Gallery in the Garland District. As Flett's ledger art has deepened and grown more powerful, Bradley sought to have his remarkable output assembled in book form.

She approached Shaun Higgins, who runs the New Media Ventures arm of Cowles Publishing. As Higgins puts it, "At New Media Ventures, we produce books we think we can sell to the newspaper industry and books that reflect the heritage of Spokane."

He quickly saw Bradley's pitch as an exciting heritage project. "No Spokane Indian artwork has been put in book form before. And George Flett is a fine mind at work, mixing contemporary technique with history. We were very excited."

Higgins turned to Integrated Composition Systems, perhaps the most highly regarded Spokane company that Spokane has never heard of.

Owned by Rick and Alice Woodbury, ICS is a specialty house that produces top quality books for university presses around the country. They get little business in Spokane, says ICS's Suzanne Harris.

Harris and Higgins became familiar with Flett's work and brainstormed a book that would treat it with the utmost respect. The result is a $70 marvel that has 12-inch-by-12-inch pages of heavyweight, acid-free paper stock, cloth bindings and fabric covers from Italy that are "debossed," which means an indentation is hammered into the cover so another plate of Flett's work can be nestled inside.

The book also comes with a slipcover and is aimed at the archival and collector market, Higgins says.

"There are about 150,000 book titles published every year in the U.S.," Higgins says. "Not one book in 1,000 -- and maybe it's safe to say not one book in 10,000 -- gets this treatment. This is a once-in-a-lifetime project and we decided if we were going to do it, we would do it right."

The biggest technical challenge, Harris says, was adjusting the colors on the printed page to match Flett's art. New Media Ventures printed 1,200 of the books and sent 12 off to the Smithsonian with Flett when he was invited there mid-June.

The Smithsonian had ordered the 12 thinking, someone quipped, that they'd be stuck with 11 books showcasing an artist from an obscure tribe.

Flett was a hit and his books sold out in a half-hour. The Smithsonian, reportedly, has asked for more.

It's a sign, Higgins and Harris say, of the power of Flett's work -- work they were happy to spread to a wider audience.

Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Feb. 13
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