Archive for Thursday, May 31, 2001

Local artist finds inspiration in his heritage

May 31, 2001

Michael Ash credits his artistic development to a 20-month tour of duty in one of the most remote places on Earth.

During the 1960s, the Navy stationed Ash on the outermost island in the Aleutian archipelago that extends into the Pacific southwest from the Alaskan mainland.

"It's a really dismal place. The sun comes out so infrequently that when it does, they give everybody the day off," he said. "The only thing to do was paint and fish. My time off, I devoted to my art. It really helped me mature as an artist."

One of the paintings Ash completed on the island was a landscape of the Missouri Ozarks, which depicted his grandfather's barn. The painting has recently been on display in downtown De Soto as part of barn art show organized by Darrel Zimmerman and Diana Zwahlen. He was one of 14 artists chosen to be part this weekend's juried art show.

"When Diana asked if I wanted to enter the show, I said, 'I happen to have a barn painting,'" he said.

Had Ash not kept the barn painting since 1966, he might not be part of the juried show. Ash is busy completing commissioned pieces and works for the five galleries in which he displays.

The galleries allow him to market the stained glass, jewelry and woodcarvings he produces in his Ancient Mariner Art Studio from coast to coast.

"I kind of do a little bit of everything," he said. "I just have an interest in art the whole spectrum of art."

Lately, Ash said he is working in two areas influenced by his interest in Native American art.

"Native American art has a big influence on my art," he said. "My father's parents were Cherokee and my mother's father was part Choctaw.

"The last couple of years, I've been hooked on gourd art. I've always admired the Anasazi (pre-Columbian pueblo builders of the American Southwest). I try to replicate their designs on gourds."

The finished gourds so successfully replicate Southwestern pottery that their light weight comes as a surprise. Ash's other Native American passion produces work that replicates Indian originals in design and material.

"Growing up, my grandfather would give me arrowheads he found while plowing," he said. "I was always fascinated by how they were made, but nobody could tell me. My grandfather was an Indian, and he didn't know."

Ash remained curious as an adult. He also found others shared his fascination. Over the past two decades, they have rediscovered the art of stone-point making called knapping.

"After I got out of the Navy, I got in with guys who were interested in this," he said. "There were only a few people still doing this and few archeologists who had some knowledge. It was really a lost art."

While there wasn't much working knowledge about how the stone tools were made, there was a great deal of speculation. Ash said the enthusiasts found most didn't work.

"Through trial and error, we found out how it was done," he said. "I could teach someone things in a day, it took me years to learn."

In time, they discovered the Native American arrowhead-making tool kit included a heavy, dense moose horn for initial stone shaping and a deer antler for finishing.

"The bone in the deer antler is soft enough to catch on the stone and breaks off chips," Ash said. Present-day knappers substitute a copper tool, he said.

The knappers also rediscovered the quarries in which the Indians found their stone. Ash has worked in many types of stone, from a native flint called winterset to obsidian, a glass formed in volcanoes.

Ash said modern knappers think stone-tool making was a social event like a quilting bee. He envisions Indians gathering together to make points, compare results and tell tales.

"That's what we do when we get together," he said of present-day knappers. "We theorize most hunters would know the basics. Ceremonial-type points were probably made by one guy."

Knapping has blossomed in the last two decades because those who rediscovered the art were willing to share what they learned, Ash said. He and his fellow enthusiasts get together twice a year at Fort Osage, Mo., to exchange ideas and show and vend their work.

A quarter of the show is reserved for Ash and other knappers who incorporate the skill into the fine arts, he said. His arrowheads find their way into necklaces, earrings and other jewelry pieces.

Ash's work is on display locally at Artistic Illusions. The gallery and this weekend's barn art show prove there is a thriving local artistic community, he said.

"One of the artists in the show, Jim Smoltz, lives a half mile from me, but I never met him before Diana opened the gallery," he said. "There are six or seven artist who live within two miles of me. It's great we can get local visibility."

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