The Indians of North Florida

Dan Townsend: Preserver of Traditional Shellcarving



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Dan Townsend
10:00 a.m – 10:00 p.m

For nearly 25 years, artisan Dan Townsend has been following in the footsteps of his ancestors by carving ancient Southeastern designs and symbols on shell.

As a young boy growing up in the Florida Keys and the Everglades, he watched his grandmother draw, paint, sew and crochet . He listened to his grandfather tell stories.

Today, Dan Townsend has created hundreds of unique replicas and personal interpretations of Native American design that are based on artifacts such as ornaments and ceremonial objects that have survived the ravages of time in the Southeast.

His carved medicine cups, gorgets (or pendants) and earrings are used in American Indian ceremonies, displayed in museums and worn by people all over the world. Anthropologists and archaeologists have singled his work out for praise for its artistic,academic and educational merits.


About Dan


Working almost exclusively in shell, Townsend replicates designs found on many American Indian sites from the Mississippian period (1000 to 1600 A.D.), including sites at Key Marco in South Florida, Kaufman Island in Central Florida, the Lake Jackson Indian Mounds in North Florida and Cedar Key along Florida’s west coast .

"Not much is generally understood about Southeastern Indian art," Townsend says, "and when I exhibit my works, I spend much of the time explaining the traditions and cultural significance of the various images I carve. However, the meaning of many works of prehistoric art have been lost in time, so interpretation becomes important to more accurately understand them."

In addition to working traditional iconography into his art, Townsend also creates original designs of his own imagination. He interprets the natural beauty of Florida and its inhabitants: the herons, sea turtles, dolphins, dragonflies, butterflies and seahorses.

"The more I study and practice this kind of art," he says, "the more I underst and it and the more adept I feel at interpretation. After working with them a long time, you begin to understand that the symbols are really a written language, a medicine language, the breath of the creator."

"Decorated and undecorated shells have been found at prehistoric sites all over North America," Townsend explains. "Shells were trade goods, as well as items to be used more directly. And they were a valued art medium for recording the people’s history and symbolizing their belief system. The richness of the depictions of wildlife and other living things in their art points to a basic understanding that everything has life in it."


Dan Townsend is based in Tallahassee, Florida. His work is in collections throughout the world – including Thailand, Denmark, South Africa, China, Russia, New Guinea, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Borneo, and Viet nam. Pieces he has created are in use by a number of tribal communities as instruments in ceremonial teachings. Townsend was among a select number of Native American artists invited to display their work at the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. He has also served as an artist in residence at the Art Institute of Chicago.



Internationally-Known Native American Artist Teaches Shell Carving Class at the College of the Muscogee Nation

August 21st, 2008

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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