Candy Moulton: Reading the West 1-31-11
Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, and Cherokee-Osage scholar and author Rennard Strickland give readers (and viewers) a multi-dimensional view of Cherokee history, philosophy, culture, and art in “Building One Fire: Art and World View in Cherokee Life.”
Their book is a combination of storytelling and art created by Cherokees ranging from textiles and baskets, to paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures. The authors organize the book around the gifts of the four messengers, the colors and qualities associated with them, and the four-point circle that embraces the sacred fire. These are all elements that are part of Cherokee consciousness and creativity and they take form in the work of Cherokee artists.
The storytelling includes the tale of how Water Spider brought the gift of fire to the Cherokee people. Since that time One Fire, “the Ancient Lady,” has been the center of Cherokee spiritual life.
From this fire, which represents community, the white smoke of prayer rises to Nitsudunvha, One Who is Always Above. And in return Nitsudunvha sends each person four sets of gifts with which to develop mind, body and spirit. The gifts come from messengers who represent the four cardinal directions – north and the color blue represented by the qualities of curiosity and intellect; south – black, compassion, loyalty, and dedication; east – brown, harmony, caring and innocence; and west – insight, meditation and collaboration. There are other qualities associated with each of the directions.
The simple storytelling style will draw you into this book and allow you to enjoy the interludes where the artists share tales of their art and inspiration. The stunning images will make you want to slowly turn the pages and savor the messages.
It is impossible to write about all of the incredible imagery and symbolism in this book, so a few examples will have to suffice.
I was struck by “Pieced Treaty” a woven paper basket that is created from strips of watercolor paper. The artist, Shan Goshorn, used the Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation tobacco compact as a source material, printing its language onto the paper, painting the sheets (so the words are still legible), and then cutting them into strips, which were woven to create the basket. It is symbolic of the “continual breaking of agreements.” Further the basket is “deliberately left unfinished as these ‘negotiations’ appear to be ongoing.”
“Indi’n Car,” a photograph also by Shan Goshorn, is one of those images that will stick with you long after you have closed the pages of the book. Four men, Warriros of the AniKituhwa, are in a car (that may have seen better days). They are holding weapons and appear as though they are actually going to war wearing face paint, feathers in their hair, and traditional clothing. As striking as the image is, the short description of the making of the photograph is also memorable. Goshorn notes that the photo was taken as the four men prepared to drive away from a photo shoot they had done. When the painted, warrior-garbed men arrived at a hotel where they would change into more modern clothing, “they entered the hotel lobby, a couple checking in changed their minds and turned around and left.” Had that couple bothered to talk with the Cherokee men, they might have learned something about Cherokee culture … but just the image apparently frightened them away.
To show that art can be incorporated into all types of everyday items, one piece by David Scott is Chief Smith’s white hardhat, which has been painted with Mississippian images.
Added bonuses in the book are the Cherokee language headings with their English translations. The book has more than 200 artworks created by 80 Cherokee artists. In addition Cherokee philosopher Benny Smith shares his teachings about Cherokee world view.
One Fire is produced by the Cherokee Nation and distributed by the University of Oklahoma Press.
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