It takes a special eye for turning something found in nature into art – vines into baskets, clay into vessels or stone into sculpture. For Knokovtee Scott, it’s shells into jewelry.
Inspired by pre-Columbian Mississippian-period shell art, Muscogee Creek and Cherokee artist Scott is still fascinated by his ancestors’ style. Using the purple mussel shells found in rivers and lakes in northeastern Oklahoma, he carves, etches and polishes gorgets, which are like pendants, and earrings.
“Purple mussels are beautiful and rare, and cherished for their purple hue, which can turn into the colors of a rainbow in sunlight,” he said. “You find 10 pounds of white shells for every purple one.”
Since 1988, the purple shell mussels found in the area have been known as the Mankiller Pearl Shell for then-Principal Chief Wilma Pearl Mankiller, after the Cherokee Tribal Council passed a resolution renaming it.
Designated a Cherokee National Living Treasure, Scott has been sharing his passion for shellwork at the Cherokee Art Center since it opened.
A retired art teacher, the 64-year-old shellworker has been making art as long as he can remember. His dad was a draftsman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who started Scott’s art education when he was 4. Scott himself graduated from Tulsa’s Daniel Webster High School in 1969, growing up in Pistol Hill between Oakhurst and Berryhill.
“Art is basic to our existence,” Scott said. “Through the study of cultural artifacts we gain knowledge of the past and receive insight into the lives of our ancient ancestors. Without it, we wouldn’t know appreciation or understand life.”
The art made today will convey the insights we had about our existence, said Scott.
“I make art because it’s embedded inside my DNA,” Scott said. “I grew up in a family of artists. My father painted, my mother crafted, my oldest sister made Cherokee tear dresses, my younger sister danced classical ballet, and my elder brother played toblerone and was an outstanding baseball player. He played on the team that won the 1959 Babe Ruth World Series in Stockton, Calif., for Bacone College and the University of Oklahoma.”
His parents were among his mentors.
“My mother and father not only inspired me, but were always there to lend a hand, ready to pitch in with all the little things that makes a person an artist, like feeding me, getting me to the shows and managing the booth when I needed a break,” he said. “Now that they’re gone, I’m inspired by their memories and the times we shared.”
Artistic influences early on also included relatives and teachers.
“As a child, my father and mother would take me to the Philbrook Annual Indian Art Show to see art made by my relatives,” he said. “My first art teacher, Mrs. Mills at Park Elementary in Red Fork, helped me begin to flourish in art, and I sold my first drawing to my third-grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Morton, for 25 cents.”
Well-known artists also inspired a youthful Scott.
“I remember meeting Cecil Dick and Willard Stone when I was 8, but my idol was Brummett Echohawk and his drawings of Little Chief that appeared in the Tulsa Sunday World newspaper back in the late ‘50s and ‘60s,” he said. “But the one who influenced me the most to pursue art as a career was my cousin, Jerome Tiger.”
In 1972, Scott began studying art at the Institute of American Indian in Santa Fe, where he was considered a studio artist. He had the opportunity to study and practice a wide variety of styles, and especially enjoyed museum studies and life drawing.
For a semester, he attended the University of Tulsa, majoring in sculpture, and in 1970, he was in the Indian Studies program at the University of Washington in Seattle, studying with Tawney Reaves, a northwest Indian carver. He graduated in 1981 from Northwestern State University with a degree in Fine Art Education. He also earned a Master’s of Education in curriculum and instruction.
“It was during this time period I was introduced to shell work by a shaman and herbalist,” he said.
Teaching is his way of keeping the art of shellwork alive.
He’s taught at schools in several states, including Oklahoma. Scott has served as director on a statewide mentoring program out of Norman, then as curriculum specialist for the Indian Education, Region 5, Southern Plains that served Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri.
Scott has earned many awards since the 1980s, including Best of Show at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum, and has pieces in many permanent collections, such as at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, Southern Plains Museum and the Smithsonian Institute. His art is available at the Cherokee Spider Gallery and the Cherokee Heritage Center.
“I enjoy cooking, gathering Indian foods and walking in the woods and along creeks looking for artifacts or jewelry material,” said Scott.