John Julius Wilnoty sculpture

EXHIBITION — The work of John Julius Wilnoty will be on display this month at the Haywood County Arts Council gallery in Waynesville.

The Haywood County Arts Council (HCAC) opened their June 2019 exhibit, Solitude & Mystery: John Julius Wilnoty, on Friday, June 7. The exhibit will be on display through June 29.

John Julius Wilnoty has been described as a “legendary” figure among Cherokee artisans. A member of the Eastern Band, Wilnoty was born in 1940 in the Bigwitch community of the Qualla Boundary and later lived in Wolftown. He grew up with little formal education.

As a sculptor, he is completely self-taught, taking up carving when he was about 20 years old. Because of his innate skill, Wilnoty became an overnight sensation, creating hundreds of stone carvings, each with its own mysterious iconography.

Wilnoty had not been carving very long when he gained the attention of the public. His Eagle Dancer sculpture was a masterful carving that used the natural grain of the wood to emphasize the movement of the dancer. Columnist John Parish dubbed the artist the Cherokee’s “Michelangelo.” Wilnoty quickly and quietly became famous, his work in high demand.

Although Wilnoty had only begun to carve in the 1960s, in 1964 he was recruited by the federal Indian Arts and Craft Board to teach a workshop for the Choctaw tribe in Mississippi. By 1971, he was a member of Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, the Cherokee’s prestigious artisan cooperative. Less than a decade after he began carving, Wilnoty was honoured with an exhibition that celebrated his carving skills and his highly imaginative and expressive handling of sculptural forms. In 1972, he was given a second solo exhibition, this one at the Pasadena Art Museum in California. That exhibit included 25 pieces in red and grey pipestone from a private collection. Over the next decades, the Smithsonian and the Washington, DC-based Indian Arts and Crafts Board collected many of his works.

Since that time, Wilnoty continued to carve, but did less carving after seriously injuring his hands and fingers with tools that must remain sharp enough to gouge hard stone. His son, Fred, and grandson, Freddy Bear, carry on the Wilnoty name and legacy. The exhibition of Wilnoty’s work—with samples by his father, sons, and grandson—is titled: “Solitude & Mystery: John Julius Wilnoty” and is on display now.

HCAC gallery hours are 10 a.m. — 5 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We are closed on Wednesdays and Sundays.

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