WELLPINIT, Wash. - The studio of George Flett is strewn with paintings, paint containers and props. A huge press used in making embossings sits alongside one wall. Native American flute music drifts from a speaker. It's not pretentious; in fact from the outside it looks much like many other buildings in the vicinity. George Flett sits at an easel relating the story behind the nearly complete painting before him. It's all very comfortable and it's obvious Flett is in his element.
Like many outstanding Indian artists, Flett is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. He said, "That school was very good for me because I worked with some of the best Indian artists. I was a classmate with a number of very important artists who are living today."
Silver work kept him going before he really got into painting. "I built rodeo buckles for just about every rodeo association in the northwest: Indian national finals, world championships, that sort of thing. I think my first love for the arts was to be able to hand engrave silver," Flett said. He still does some silver work but paintings have occupied the majority of his time in recent years. He's tried a little of everything. "Being a full-time artist for the last 28 years you have to try everything you can to make it work. I've been involved in painting murals for tribal schools and the mural society in Toppenish, Wash. You have to seek out these various places to do these sorts of things. You learn all the ins and outs of everything."
His paintings have changed drastically as he constantly tries out new ideas. Flett commented, "As Indian artists we're sometimes afraid to step over lines. As I get older and wiser I'm not afraid to do those things." Ledger drawings are presently good sellers and it's a style he's been producing for about five years. He commented, "Being from the Plateau area, my ledger drawings are more about Plateau legends and culture than the Plains or Southwest. I'm very pleased with the outcome of what's happening." He incorporates colored pencil into the ledger paintings as it's similar to the ledger drawings of the 1800s. Otherwise, acrylics and watercolors presently make up most of his work.
Flett plans to do a show in San Diego in November and is preparing with a number of ledger drawings that incorporate embossings in a modern type of ledger. The piece on his easel is intended for that show. In explaining the painting he talks with pride of sponsoring the biggest Prairie Chicken Dance contest in the northwest. He handpicks the drums and personally invites many good dancers. He always asks the drummers for the first song to be a horse-stealing song so that during the grand entry they'll play this song. He explains that is what this ledger is about. "I'm pretty excited about it. I have the drummers playing the horse stealing song. One man is coming toward the drum waving his dance stick over the drum getting more power from the song. Suddenly all these spirits of the horses start coming around."
Flett had a booth at Santa Fe Indian Market again this past August. He said, "It's the best Indian art market in the country. I pretty much work for the Santa Fe show every year." He added, "Everyone goes hoping for good sales in a very competitive market. This year I did do well and sold well and that gives me more incentive to work harder." He's also had showings at such prestigious sites as the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Eitlejorg Museum in Indianapolis. He's worked with various galleries but usually finds he can market his work better than the galleries. Presently the only gallery to carry his work is Tin Man Gallery in Spokane, Wash.
Authenticity is a high priority. Much of that was learned from his mother. "My mother was one of the primary bead workers and basket makers from the Plateau area. I used to visit her in her bedroom for a number of hours and she'd talk about the legends of our Spokane people."
Jeanne Givens, Coeur d'Alene echoes those sentiments about his authenticity. Givens has served as chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Institute of American Indian Arts the past two years and lives in Idaho about two hours away from Flett's studio. She commented, "George's work is something we've been collecting for quite a while. The reason why his work is so precious to me is because he takes the approach of authenticity very seriously. He's committed to portraying the Native people of this region in an accurate way. George's eyes, his memories, his connection with tribal elders is incorporated into his art so his art on one hand is very beautiful but on the other hand it's a preservation of a way of life that is really important to us to know about as Indians.
"You can feel the beat of the music when you look at George's paintings. I hope to see his work in the National Gallery."
When asked about the future, Flett replied, "There are getting to be so many great Indian artists you have to come up with new ideas. I've been in contact with art instructors and picked their brains about printmaking. I want to learn more about hand pulling my own prints, just to better myself as an Indian artist."
Flett is certainly the best known Indian artist in the Inland Empire of eastern Washington and northern Idaho. Could he have done better financially by moving to the hotter Indian art markets of the southwest? His response tells it all, "It works very well for me right here where I'm at. I could never live anywhere else."