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Taos Pueblo artist honors elders, ancestors with drums, metal sculptures

TAOS PUEBLO – The steady heartbeat of Taos Pueblo echoes through the valley, across San Geronimo Church and Red Willow Creek and through the doors of 1,000-year-old adobe.

Detail of hummingbird on a drum. Painted drum titled "Northern Deers." (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Detail of hummingbird on a drum. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Sean Flanagan absorbed that beat and transformed it into drums at Wahleah’s, the family’s pueblo trading post.

Flanagan will be one of about 135 artists showing at the Winter Indian Market at Santa Fe’s La Fonda on the Plaza on Friday, Dec. 16 through Dec. 18. The artwork for sale will include jewelry, pottery and ornaments, among others.

Of Irish and Taos Pueblo heritage, he grew up in Albuquerque, where his mother, Wahleah, taught elementary school. As a child, he drew on everything from river rocks to canvas. His father, Don, led the women’s basketball team at the University of New Mexico. His parents met at Colorado’s Fort Lewis College, where he had won a basketball scholarship. When it was his turn, Sean majored in advertising and communications at New Mexico State University.

But the family always returned to Taos, where at least four generations had lived in the ancient, five-room building that now serves as a gallery. Pottery from both Taos and Acoma lines bookshelves, cabinets and benches. Navajo rugs loom over the walls. Archaeologists say that ancestors of the Taos Indians lived in this valley long before Columbus discovered America and hundreds of years before Europe emerged from the Dark Ages.

Painted drums by Taos Pueblo artist Sean Flanagan, who will be at Winter Indian Market.

Painted drums by Taos Pueblo artist Sean Flanagan, who will be at Winter Indian Market.

“My mother was brought up here with my great-grandparents,” Sean said.

The original ponderosa pine vigas still brace the ceiling, and a kiva fireplace anchors nearly every room. It also serves as an art studio.

“I do the drums to keep me grounded in the Native American world,” he said. “A lot of times, I let the drum determine what it wants to be.”

Sean began carving drums from ponderosa pine and cottonwood trunks in the late 1990s, learning traditional techniques from his uncles and grandfather. The skins are deer, elk or buffalo hide. He soaks them in water for two to three days before stretching and tying them. He then paints them with acrylics, because the medium expands and contracts with the weather.

Some of the natural pigmentation in the skins resembles cloud and smoke shapes and forms.

“I sometimes call it the matrix of the hide,” he said.”I ended up seeing drums as a canvas.

“We get our hides from the sacred mountain,” he added. “The larger the drum, the deeper the tone. You want it to have a strong sound with a beautiful vibration.”

Painted drum titled "Northern Deers. " (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Painted drum titled “Northern Deers. ” (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Stylized deer, parrots, ravens and hummingbirds flit across his leather canvas like pottery motifs. He hikes in search of petroglyphs for design inspiration, then makes them his own.

He attended his first Santa Fe Indian Market in 2003, winning both first and second place.

“I fought it for years,” he said of the urge to create. “I was feeling like I should be out in the business world. But even when I was very young, I was drawing and I was out in the landscape finding designs.”

The male and female deer represent the circle of life, he said. The buffalo is for strength and endurance. The bear means strength and the power of the soul. The soaring thunderbird and the eagle symbolize closeness to God.

“We have many ceremonies that pay tribute to the animals for giving of themselves,” he said. “They’ll echo all the way up the foothills of the mountain.”

He also creates steel sculptures using more contemporary patterns. An abstracted bison spirals from a series of circles.

He sells his work at the Santa Fe Indian Market; the Heard Museum Market, in Phoenix; and the Autry Museum of the American West, in Los Angeles.

“Everybody knows how to play the drum,” he said. “Everyone can play a tune and do a repetitive beat.”

He once received a letter from a collector who used them to help autistic and blind people.

“I have depressed people who sit in a room and play, and they feel better,” he said.

“I feel like I’m always trying to represent my elders and the people before me. I want to make my ancestors proud of what I do.”