Dan Townsend, an internationally known Native American artist, recently spent a month at the College of the Muscogee Nation on Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology’s campus sharing the art of shell carving, the OSU-Okmulgee announced.
The artist taught Native American artisans, educators, tribal officials and area students to create ancient designs.
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. Townsend began selling his works at powwows and art shows.
Shell carving is now his full-time job and his works are in art collections all around the world, including Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark.
Most of Townsend’s students for the summer workshop are of Muscogee (Creek) descent and many are Native American artists in their own right.
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. I’m looking forward to sharing this art form with my students.”
Unlike the ancient Native Americans, students used a wide variety of small, motorized tools and magnifiers in carving designs derived from the Muscogee Swift Creek people.
“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.”
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.”
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