Shortly after I started adding color to the flute bodies, I received a flute in the mail from a young student. He had decorated one of the flutes we had donated to a reservation school in North Dakota. The flute was completely painted, with the main body of the flute deep red and the mouthpiece-end black. He added small colorful images of feathers, arrows and stick figures. Its simplistic and primitive images made it a stunning piece of art. I have always stored my special flutes in boxes and sadly, over the years, the flute disappeared before I took photos. Now I take photos of everything.
The original notion of adding color to the flutes came to me during dream-time, where a few vivid images of pottery, blankets and Kachinas displayed their colorful beauty. But the gift of the painted flute was an even stronger inspiration to integrate color in the creation of the flutes.
The first few attempts were pleasing to the eye, but after continuous handling of the flute, the painted images and symbols started to blemish and fade. The solution was to recess the painted images and symbols so the hands would not rub up against the colors.
The majority of wood species have wonderfully unique grain patterns and natural color combinations. I found that the painted colors distracted from these inherently beautiful characteristics. The natural wood tones of birch, maple and pine lent themselves beautifully to the integration of color. They are light blond colored woods that, for the most part, have an even texture with a minimum of outstanding grain. The painted colors stand out and do not compete with the aesthetic of these woods.
As much as I enjoyed the creative flexibility of using color, I found that the majority of people had a greater connection to the natural characteristic of the individual woods than to the painted technique. I decided to use color more sparingly and focus on highlighting the artistic patterns that Nature grows into each individual piece of wood.
Creating the optimal sound is the ultimate goal for any instrument, but there is the natural tendency to want to add artistic beauty to the overall body. This is equally true for the Native Flute, which is fundamentally functional art. The instrument just begs to be shaped and carved into a unique, splendid sculpture.
A theme contributes to the creation of the flute body, which most of the time comes to me while closely observing Nature. Watching the crows feasting from the fruit of the walnut tree stimulates my curiosity to hear the voice of that walnut tree and to translate the relationship of the birds and tree on the flute. The fetish becomes the most obvious sculptural image and, in some cases, the incredible grain and color of the wood on the body of the flute speak for themselves. Other times, carving related images in the body enhance the message and blend well with the wood.
It has been a gift to have the opportunity to be creative in the process of making and designing flutes. It continuously brings me great satisfaction and joy. And like the experience of playing music itself, the possibilities seem endless.