The art world lost a beloved figure on January 30. George Flett, a nationally recognized artist walked on at his home in Wellpinit, Washington at the age of 66. Many would argue he was the most universally beloved person in the northwest. Soft spoken and generous almost to a fault, one never heard a bad word spoken about him.
Flett was born in Nespelem, Washington on October 20, 1946 and attended high school in Wellpinit on the Spokane Reservation where he was an enrolled member. He learned the Spokane culture and legends from his mother, Nancy, and that knowledge was displayed in his artwork.
He graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe in 1968, then spent the following two years in the U.S. Army before turning his attention fully to creating art. Those early art years were spent largely as a silversmith—many rodeo cowboys still wear buckles Flett created. He continued silver work throughout his life, although painting became increasingly more important.
His style evolved and he was one of the first to do ledger-style work. A book entitled George Flett, Ledger Art was produced in 2007 with 37 plates of his ledger art, showing both military and spiritual images.
Over the years he displayed his work across the country and was a regular at the Santa Fe Indian Art Market. He taught workshops at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and helped put together art shows and sales for the Julyamsh powwow each year and conducted his own show and auction during the Wellpinit powwow every Labor Day weekend.
“It’s hard to put into words what a special person he was, a real gentleman. I never heard him say a mean word about anybody,” said Sue Bradley, owner of the Tinman Gallery in Spokane, which carried Flett’s work. “He was an exceptional artist and dedicated to making connections to people about Indian art and culture and he did that through his paintings. Not only is this going to leave a hole in the Indian artistic community but it’s going to leave a big hole in this whole regional art community.”
Perhaps less well known to the general public, but well known to dancers, was his involvement in rekindling interest in the prairie chicken dance. The dance had been around for a long time but had nearly died out before Flett stepped in. In 1992, he began sponsoring prairie chicken dance specials at the Wellpinit powwow. He continued that annually through last year, contributing $3,000 in prize money each year and inviting the best dancers he could find. He hand picked the drums and invited some of the better dancers. Dancers came from the Canadian provinces and western states. Blackfeet, Crow, Rocky Boy, Gros Ventre, Piikani, Nez Perce and many others. That dance has now regained popularity and is danced at many powwows. Prairie chicken dancers were frequently the subject of his paintings.
“He just loved it so much. He drew pictures of the outfits, their actions,” said Steven SmallSalmon, a Pend d’Oreille elder and prairie chicken dancer. “It was not just a contest, but the way it’s supposed to be.”
Flett was a prolific painter, churning thousands of paintings out of his studio in his lifetime. When visitors stopped by they’d see paint containers, brushes, and props scattered about and hear Indian music.
His art can be seen at tribal offices, schools, casinos, and museums, many times donated by Flett.
“He is a friend who cannot ever be replaced. He’s one of a kind. He’s going to be missed very much. Nobody’s going to fill his boots,” Frances Cullooyah, Kalispel elder and Flett’s friend since they attended the IAIA together, said about him.
Fellow artist Rick Gendron said he was like an older brother. “He meant so much to me in my life.” A thought that many share.
A friendship dance will be held at Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights, Washington on February 23 in Flett’s honor.
He is survived by a daughter, Regina Flett; son, George “Rooster” Jr.; and son, Phillip George Flett.