Building One Fire
Art + World View in Cherokee Life
Chadwick Corntassel Smith
University of Oklahoma, Distributor)
There's something refreshing about Building One Fire. Perhaps it is the design of the book, which we can call elegant but not prissy.
Perhaps it is the astute and diverse collection of photographs of Cherokee art --- over two hundred in number --- that range from simple shots of simple jewelry, children's sketches, pottery and stone and wood carving to acrylics, tempera, and elaborate basket-work (all laid out simply, filling the page with color and light and form) --- with none of the sickly commentary that blemishes most "art" books that come our way.
Or perhaps it is the brief "teachings" outlined at the very beginning ... strands of Cherokee beliefs that lead us in the four directions, which in turn lead to "Ways to Express Existence in Fours." All are presented without pretension, and, in their directness, remind us of those who balanced the four directions, the four elements, the four governing principles, the four seasons, the four virtues ("Inception, gestation, emergence, existence") with the final main: "wholeness, growth, nourishment, protection."The art ranges from pottery, jewelry and simple decorations from a thousand years ago, to masks, buckles, oilstick and watercolors from this century. Considering the fairly vile treatment the Cherokees got from the 18th Century Tea Party regulars --- the "Trail of Tears" being a good example --- you would expect more bitter representations here, but outside of a few heart-breaking children's drawings of that event (and a funny awful ink drawing of Andrew Jackson by Roy Boney) --- the majority show an excess of sincerity and hope. There are even a few photographs included, the most festive being of a picnic held in Park Hill, Oklahoma a hundred years ago, showing a gentleman and several bustled ladies eating watermelons and having a ball.
One of the accomplishments of Building One Fire is the banishment of the rubric "primitive" from what we know of as Cherokee art and life. Some of the polished wood carvings that now stand at Harrah's in Cherokee, North Carolina can match the rare wood works of the late Impressionists. Contemporary gourds by David Scott may remind one of early Picasso, and his colorful "Mississippian Warrior with iPod" is a merry commentary on elements of the modern that have invaded reservation life.
"Fish Dreams" by Demos Glass [Fig. 1 above] has an edge of the 1930s Moderne, and spider pendants in silver by General B. Grant (sic) are of such a quality that I wanted to pick up the phone and order a couple to help disguise what Katherine Hepburn once so inelegantly described as "the rot of the ages." Sam Watts Scott's "Eagle Dancer" reminds one of the most rousing figures out of early Mayan manuscripts, and Bill Glass has constructed a ceramic bottle that looks back at you as you are looking at it. With twelve pairs of eyes.--- Beverly Winters, MA