Crow Comes Home: Tis Mal Crow’s Work Returns to Tennessee

Beaded Buckskin Bear Doll, c.2005, 8 inches tall
Beaded Puzzle Pouch Bag, c.2005, 7 inch bag on 18 inch beaded neck chain

From Krishna Adams, Director of Visual Arts, Craft, Media and Design

Picture it — Nashville, December 15, 1999, the Tennessee Arts Commission Gallery opens with Transforming Tradition, an exhibition highlighting hand-crafted, tradition-inspired, contemporary native objects by Tis Mal Crow. Crow fashioned the objects using materials such as smoked bear and moose hides, claws, fur, teeth and antique beads reflecting the materials that were originally used in his culture. He was often found creating detailed bone and beaded necklaces, dolls that often represented spirit animal characters dressed as people, beaded feather fans, puzzle pouches and more. Most of his hand-sewn designs originated from dreams, oral history or storytelling.

“I see myself as a bead artist. I’ve done some pretty outrageous stuff with beadwork.”– Crow 

Crow, a First Nations (Cherokee/United Lumbee/Hitchiti) artist and Speedwell, TN resident, started learning about beadwork and herbal medicines when he was eight. He was also known internationally for his devotion to herbal healing, education and author of the book, Native Plants, Native Healing, Traditional Muskogee Way.  

In FY2002, Crow received further attention from the Commission when he became a recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship in Craft. This is a highly competitive Commission grant awarded to outstanding professional artists, who by education, experience, or natural talent engage in a particular art form or discipline, and live and work in Tennessee. After receiving the Fellowship award, he continued to create and show beaded objects of significance, taught classes and spoke at symposiums sharing his knowledge of herbal healing.

His artwork was exhibited across the country including the Mingei International Folk Art Museum in San Diego, California; and internationally at The Arctic Gem Gallery in Skellautaue, Sweden and Kelowna Fine Arts Gallery in Kelowna, B.C. Canada among others. His work appeared in numerous publications including Ornament Magazine, Bead and Button Magazine, Interweave Beadwork, and Wellness,and in North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment, a book by Lois Sherr Dudin. He also bore the distinction of being one of five people in the country that was skilled in the vanishing art of moose hair embroidery used for clothing ornamentation and bark containers. Crow was also featured on The Heartland Series, a TV program produced in Knoxville that features information about the culture of Appalachia. In 2006, Crow passed away and was put to rest at Braden’s Chapel Cemetery in Claiborne County, Tennessee.

Now, flash forward to April 2019. Anne B. Pope, executive director of the Commission receives an interesting and inquiring phone call from The Indian Craft Shop at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Having researched and learned of Crow’s Fellowship Award and exhibition, the Commission was offered a generous gift of not one, but two of Crow’s beaded works he created the year before he passed away.  Through the kind collaboration with The Indian Craft Shop, the Commission is most honored to be participating in the return of Crow’s work to Tennessee so that others will be able to view the objects. It is the Commission’s great pleasure to include Crow’s Beaded Buckskin Bear Dolland Beaded Puzzle Pouch Baginto the permanent collection. 

“I felt strongly about the Tennessee Arts Commission since this agency had awarded Tis Mal a fellowship that he was grateful for and the Commission also has pieces in its permanent collection.” – Susan Pourian, Director, The Indian Craft Shop

This Beaded Puzzle Pouch Bagis based on a traditional design that can be a bit of a mystery to open. To the untrained eye, the pouch seems decorative and without function. However, by using the friction with the strips of leather in the top part of the pouch, one can pull open the pouch to access a small but secure compartment.  The Beaded Buckskin Bear Dollstems its roots from a Cherokee legend that bears originated from the Ani’-Tsa’guhi, a Cherokee clan who left their village to live off the forested land. To survive and adapt to their new life in the woods, the clan quickly grew hair similar to animals, and claws on their bodies. Both works are on view at the Tennessee Arts Commission at 401 M.L.K. Jr. Blvd in Nashville, TN.O