This summer, Dan Townsend, an internationally-known Native American artist, brought the art of Native American shell carving to the College of the Muscogee Nation on Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology’s campus. For one month, he shared insights into ancient designs and taught skills to create them to Native American artisans, educators, tribal officials and students from the area.
The works of the Tallahassee, Florida resident are part of art collections in countries all around the world including Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark.
A citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Florida, Townsend grew up in the Everglades of the Florida Keys. An artistic grandmother inspired him as a child to carve tikis and totems out of palm trunks. As he grew older, he started scribing Native American designs on shells, or “folapvs” (foe-la-pahs), for tribal elders. He began selling his works at powwows and art shows. “Shell carving turned out to be a full-time job, and now I live and breathe it every day. It’s all-consuming.”
Townsend, a visiting artist brought in by the College of the Muscogee Nation, is helping preserve the culture of the tribe by training others in this very precise craft. Students used a wide variety of small motorized tools and magnifiers in carving designs based on the symbology, iconography and cosmology of the Muscogee Swift Creek people. Tools for the 2,000 year-old art form have evolved from animal teeth to drill bits. The results are fascinating designs developed by the Muscogee people with a vision for seeing beauty and magic in nature.
“I recently visited some tribal members who were creating Native American art using ancient tools and methods,” said Townsend. “I was amazed at how fast they were able to produce these works. What struck me was the communal rhythm they had as they worked. We are used to thinking that creating something must have taken a long time using primitive instruments, but this experience gave me a window into the past, and I saw how a people’s culture can be as powerful a factor as a new technology.”
Most of Townsend’s students for the summer workshop are of Muscogee (Creek) descent and many are Native American artists in their own right. They refer to Townsend not as an instructor, but as a “Mvhayv” (may-hi-yah) or teacher/mentor.
Sandy Fife Wilson, art teacher at Morris schools, and one of the Fife sisters well-known for their Muscogee (Creek) fashion designs, said, “My students do pottery, print making and leatherwork, but shells are a new material I’ve never worked with, and the designs have so much meaning. All cultures have different symbols for life and spirituality. Early cultures without a written language had to have these symbols to pass down stories and messages. I’m looking forward to sharing this art form with my students.”
Another student, Mike Berryhill, a Muscogee (Creek) bow maker and potter, feels Townsend’s shell carving class is important, because it provides Berryhill with yet another way to pass on an ancient tribal craft and custom to the next generation. “Actually it’s all connected; a lot of the carving bone tools were also used for making bows and shaping wooden utensils. Today, we use modern tools, but the methods are the same. As I work on these designs, I think back to several thousand years ago – I realize for my ancestors, this was their way of life. In many ways it meant survival; whether it was a design that made someone feel protected and empowered – or, a bow that helped a hunter feed his family. These objects they created with their own hands were extremely important to them!”
Townsend has taught at Northwestern University, Westminster University and Florida State University. He has also been a resident artist at the Chicago Art Institute, where his skills were demonstrated at the “Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand” exhibit, which featured 300 pieces of Native American art from the ancient Midwest and South United States. The pieces were created between 2000 B.C. and 1600 A.D.
“In my opinion, the ‘Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand’ exhibit is one of the finest Native American art collections ever configured,” said Townsend.
In 2004 Townsend, along with several other Native American artists, received a special invitation to the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Townsend said each artist represented a different region and the shell work represented the Southeast complex of the United States – according to Townsend, quite an honor for the Muscogee (Creek) tribe.
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