Saturday, November 14, 2009

Profile of an Artist: Samuel Thomas

Samuel Thomas,  a member of the Lower Cayuga Band of the Iroquois Nation, is a self-taught artist who incorporates traditional Iroquois embossed (three-dimensional) beading and symbolism in his pieces. Over the past 27 years, he has received over 90 national and international awards for his work and has pieces in permanent collections of many museums in the United States and Canada, including the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Sam initially learned to work with leather and discovered bead work when he wanted to embellish his leather pieces. He began to research and revitalize traditional bead work techniques and found his calling in this intricate art. Sam incorporates traditional Iroquois design, symbolism and teachings into his contemporary pieces which typically include the strawberry and hummingbird as his personal identity markers. The strawberry is an important fruit to the Iroquois people, as one of the five sacred gifts that Sky Woman brought to the earth when she fell through a hole left by the uprooting of the celestial tree in the sky world as well as having medicinal properties. The hummingbird is a contemporary motif representing the balance between good and evil.

Samuel Thomas's projects have spanned the globe. In 2003, he received several grants including an Ontario Arts Council grant and a Canada Council grant to collaborate with African artists to create a six foot tall beaded tree of peace, a "visual representation of cross-cultural peace and unity". While in Africa, Thomas worked with indigenous peoples and artists to learn their almost extinct beading techniques, document their heritage and conduct collaborative workshops.  This project was based on the traditional Iroquoian teaching of peace and unity in which a white pine tree was uprooted and all weapons of war were placed into the pit with the tree re-planted on top to become the Great Tree of Peace. It was told that the roots of the Great Tree spread in all directions of Mother Earth and that anyone seeking peace and protection under the Great Tree can follow the roots back to their source to find peace. Each element of the tree was carefully considered as to its underlying meaning. For example, there are fifty branches to represent the fifty original chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy, fifty strawberries to symbolize cleansing and renewal, and an eagle perched on top to watch for danger and protect the people. Even the East Africans bead winding process called Mutilima is representative of the continuous winding symbolizing the continuity of life.  The Great Tree of Peace was unveiled at the United Nations headquarters on May 15, 2007.

More recently, Samuel Thomas traveled to places of sacred power as Stonehenge, the Temple of Delphi in Greece, the Egyptian Pyramids, Kenya, and our own Niagara Falls. While at these places of power, Samuel Thomas used them as sources of inspiration for bead work pieces created on site. The result of this work will be unveiled at the Grimsby Museum in December 2009.

This humble artist has created incredibly powerful work that celebrates the traditions of his people while furthering the cause of peace and harmony through the world. He does not have his own website and neither is he interested in publicity. Nevertheless, he is both a great artist and a great man and that is the reason I wanted to acknowledge his very important work.

To see a few more examples of Samuel Thomas' beautiful beadwork, visit Bear Paw Keepsakes on-line or visit the Grimsby Museum in Ontario (December 10, 2009 to March 2010).