Artist Profile: James Francis, Sr.

Once again, it’s important to remember that we define fiber rather broadly here at Fiber College. And once you meet James Francis, Sr., you’ll be glad we DO! James works with moose and deer skin to create incredible drums and he joins us this year for not only a two-day intensive class but also an evening of stories and music from the Penobscot Nation on Wednesday. It’s been a privilege to talk with James by telephone; I was intrigued by his eloquence and passion for all that he explores with his art.

James is the Penobscot Nation’s Tribal Historian and studies the relationship between Maine Native Americans and the landscape. Recently James conducted an extensive Oral History Project for the Penobscot Nation. He has served as curator for Penobscot History exhibits at many locations including Bangor, the Abbe Museum, and Harvard University. James is an accomplished historical researcher, photographer, filmmaker, and graphic artist.

James will teach a two-day class, Penobscot Drums: Culture and Craft on Wednesday, September 6 and Thursday, September 7 from 9 AM to 4 PM both days. This is an extraordinary opportunity to work with an accomplished artist and historian to explore your connections to the world around you as you design and apply a personal motif on the drum provided to you (while also learning some music!). Then, each participant will hand sew a deer or moose skin drumbeater. There’s still time to sign up for his class here. Let’s meet James.

Fiber College chooses a new theme each year. For 2017, it’s Re-Use, Re-Design, Re-Create.  How do you incorporate any part of this theme into an important part of your life?

Through my understanding of the landscape, I do all of those. I redesign the landscape by looking at it from an ancient cultural lens, indigenous to this landscape, which more readily harmonizes with the landscape.

James perceives the world around him through an indigenous lens which provides rich material for his beautiful drums.

Tell us how you entered into the world of fiber and the fiber arts.

I studied landscape and history. I’m an artist, historian, geographer, photographer. The drum is the heartbeat of the land, and by playing a drum, you become intertwined with the place. You become a participant in what’s going on in anybody’s sense of that place in that moment that you’re playing. The drum’s a very important conduit between the culture and the landscape on a spiritual level. What can further enhance the connection between the drummer, the song they sing, and the landscape is the design they put on the drum. It’s a spiritual tattoo that gives someone a visual sense of who you are as a singer and drummer of any given song.

What’s the best piece of advice a mentor has ever given to you?

Be yourself and find your voice.

James has created some gorgeous commissioned pieces. Extraordinary!

Tell us about a time that you developed an exciting idea for your art; where did the idea come from?  What inspired you?

The Penobscot new moon drum project!  The idea came from seeing our connection–the Penobscot connection–linguistically beyond just the landscape. I studied place names – it gave me the linguistic link. With this project, each name also gave us the linguistic link to a very narrow time of the year. The Penobscot moon calendar is in the language. Each moon has its own name, like the Moon of Laying Eggs of Owls and Eagles. Each name describes something in the landscape that is very identifiable.  If you understand the landscape, you know about the cues in the landscape.  Others include The Moon when Ice Forms on the Margins of Lakes, the Moon of Rutting Caribou and Moose, the Moon of when the Smelts are Running, and The Moon that Provides a Little Food Grudgingly.  These names let us explore the cycle of nature for the whole year and then capture an image from moon to moon.

If you could re-design your life as an artist, what would that look like?

It would look exactly like the one I have – I wouldn’t have to redesign it!

What or who has had the greatest impact on your work as an artist?

My mother.

How does your art recreate YOU? What does that feel like?

My art embodies the indigenous landscape whether thru music/song, lunar cycles, understanding of ancient place, indigenous spaces, and how Penobscots lived in harmony in that place. All of that informs who I am as
an historian, geographer, artist, photographer, husband, father, son. I am a person of the land. It all connects to my art – my connection to a sense of place beyond what we have here currently, back to an indigenous sense of place. It’s all interlinked. I operate under this idea: space + culture = place. You can supplant cultures – we have the same space “Penobscot River Valley” but it’s a different culture today with a kind of Western thinking; we have a different sense of place there now. If I supplant it with indigenous, Penobscot culture, we get a different sense of place.

What’s the most important thing that you want potential students to know about you?

I want them to understand that my role as a teacher is to get them to understand their place and their connection to places that are important to them.

James’ insights are enlightening and thought-provoking. We are so fortunate to have him join us at Fiber College this year. There’s still time to sign up for his amazing two-day class AND you won’t want to miss his stories and music by the campfire on Wednesday evening after dinner. Be sure to sign up now!


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