Meandering around an exhibit of Smith’s works within the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual (located on the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), Abram points out the intricate details of the pieces — ranging from watercolors to acrylic paintings to detailed imagery on animal bone.
“Dee’s paintings are beautiful, but it’s the miniatures that are super detailed,” Abram said, pointing to a small painting on a piece of deer antler. “He told me he would take one single strand of hair from a paintbrush, dip it in paint and then draw the scene one line at a time.”
Alongside the pieces depicting Smith’s extensive artistic career and talents, there’s also a section of the exhibit dedicated to the Trail of Tears, which was the tragic removal of native tribes in the 1830s from ancestral homelands to west of the Mississippi River, many of which not surviving the arduous journey.
A portion of Smith’s artwork focuses on the Trail of Tears, with Abram also adding the entire 1835 Henderson Roll underneath of the paintings. A census of the Cherokee Nation taken by the United States government, the roll itemizes the families, land and skillsets of those ripped from their homes and sent west, with the exhibit displaying those families torn from Western North Carolina.
“The few Cherokee that remained here [in Western North Carolina] avoided removal by hiding out and laying as low as you can to maybe be overlooked in these mountains,” Abram said.
Originally from Indiana, Abram has been collecting Cherokee artwork since he was a kid, initially being gifted a small pine needle basket from a Cherokee acquaintance who lived in Western North Carolina.
“What has always fascinated me about the Cherokee is that it’s an ancient culture that is right here and alive today, where you can interact and talk with these incredible people — learning about their history, beliefs and values,” Abram said.
Part of the Dee Smith collection currently on display at the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual.
From there, Abram relocated to the Great Smoky Mountains in 1989, a place where he and his wife continue to acquire Cherokee artwork in large quantities. The couple travel the country constantly, hosting gallery showcases of the Cherokee artwork and elaborate academic presentations on the vibrant history of the tribe.
“You are discovering the past through the present,” Abram said. “You’re not simply looking at an antique. This is one of the few real portals you can find anywhere where you’re interacting with an ancient culture.”
At age 74, Abram estimates the number of items in the collection hovers somewhere in the tens of thousands, so many pieces that he’s “never seen the whole collection at one time,” with the artwork in several storage facilities.
“Anybody can collect art, but you’ve got to know the background of the culture and the history of the people whose art you’re collecting,” Abram said. “It’s a respect thing — in order to interpret it, you’ve got to see it through the eyes of their culture.”
Dr. Michael Abram.
Known as the Cherokee Heritage Museum & Galleries Permanent Collection, Abram is currently in the process of hopefully finding a physical location for the works in the coming years (part of the collection was located in Summit Village from 1983 to 2010).
For now, Abrams walks around the Dee Smith and Trail of Tears exhibit proudly, ready and willing to share his knowledge with any and all who walk through the front door. He’s not only keeping the memory his late friend alive, he’s also keenly aware of the importance of making sure these pieces see the light of day, that the Cherokee history will never be covered up by the sands of time.
“If this collection didn’t exist, we would be missing a timeline,” Abram said. “We’ve collected long enough that we’re now into generations of families, where some of these artists have passed on, but we have their pieces preserved.”
Want to go?
An exhibit honoring Cherokee artist John Daniel (Dee) Smith Sr. is currently being showcased at the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, located at 645 Tsali Boulevard in Cherokee.
The exhibit is a collection of Smith’s watercolors and paintings, which is curated by Dr. R. Michael Abram. The gallery showing will run through March 31.
For more information, call 828.497.3103.