Inspired by his daughter Cheyenne who was looking into their Cherokee heritage, local artist Troy Slate began basket weaving and exploring Native American art. Finding that he enjoys discovering how to make things the way people did hundreds of years ago; Slate started making things out of natural materials like cypress stumps, pine needles, bamboo, river cane, and raffia.
Slate, 41, has been an artist all his life, though he has listed many occupations on his resume. Slate served in the U.S. Army for over 11 years, was a corrections officer, gas station attendant, extradition agent, car salesman, drill instructor, and even worked at a VA hospital before he decided to become a full-time artist and teacher.
In the Army, Slate used to design tattoos. Later he decided to go to Orlando Metropolitan University to study commercial art, though he lost interest and left to try his hand at craft shows. He also started volunteering at the local VA hospital, where he taught disabled vets to paint.
“Right then is when I decided I liked teaching,” he said.
Now Slate teaches a medley of classes at Taste of Art Studio at Brickerton Shops in Columbus where students will paint canvas, weave baskets, do wood burning, gourd art or experiment with some of the other mediums Slate deals in. He has also taught classes at the Rosenzweig Arts Center and the YMCA.
Unlike some artists, who stick with one or two mediums, Slate has an affinity for experimenting with everything. Slate is particularly interested in organic materials.
“Native Americans would make art with stuff that was around them,” he said. “Besides oil and canvas, almost everything I make you can find in the woods.
Slate uses these natural materials in his basket weaving classes. “The only thing in class that isn’t purely organic is the needles,” he said, speaking of the metal sewing needles used to stitch the other materials together. He teaches his classes how to group weave pine needles together using raffia and a section of bamboo around a small wooden base starter. The results are large ornate bowls and platters, with his more advanced students weaving patterns into the sides.
“I get enjoyment out of learning what I can make. When I first found out about pine needles, I didn’t know how you could make a basket out of them, so I researched and figured it out. Native Americans used sap to water seal it and animal intestines or sinew to bind it… though now I just use raffia from Wal-Mart.”
He collects the pine needles at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. The needles there are longer than local pine trees produce and he dries and stains them in mass in preparation for himself and his students.
“I love teaching people how to make baskets. People see them and it’s something you can take a little bit of pride in. It’s almost a lost art,” he said. “(It’s) something people have been making for hundreds of years, but with current technology, the art has been pushed aside.
“Once you learn how to use them and do the form, there is an unlimited supply of supplies, some people talked about using corn husks, kudzu, anything fiber you can use. I love watching people have more ideas with it.”
Slate says his current favorite thing to make is flutes. “I’ll find a piece of wood (cedar, red oak, pine or bamboo) that’s in the words, split it down the middle, and hollow it out to make two chambers,” he said explaining part of his process.
“The Native Americans measured each flute by arm, hand and finger lengths. Each was made for specific people, each one making a different noise.”
The flutes, which he sells for $10-$25 at craft shows, are one of his best sellers. Slate said he has been inspired by people the people who buy them to learn how to play them better. He is working on learning sheet music.
“I’ve met people who know how to play them really well,” he said. “One guy picked one up and just went to town on it.”
Slate says one of his favorite parts of his trade is meeting all the people he does through his art. He often sets up booths at farmers markets and craft shows and has also done shows at galleries.
He recently had a booth at Caledonia Day and sold out everything he had. “I had to call a friend to bring more stuff out,” he said. “I was dead freaking out by the end of Caledonia day.”
Slate has partnered with local organizations and donated his work for their causes. He recently made some cypress knee wood burning of pit bulls that were raffled off to benefit Shaw Pit Bull Rescue.
He has also partnered with Heather Thomas, another local artist, for design work for gourd art and oil on canvas pieces. “I’m a guy,” he said. “Sometimes my style and color matching needs help.”
Originally from Kansas, Slate has also lived in several states in pursuit of his art, including Florida, New York and now Mississippi. When his grandparents moved to Columbus seven years ago, Slate decided he liked the town and moved too. His daughter Cheyenne, who is 15, continues to live in Florida, but Slate makes trips to see her often.
Slate has been doing freelance art for 22 years and has produced everything from detailed portraiture work to animals and landscapes to collegiate wind spinners (hanging wooden cut slates with pictures or logos wood burned or painted on them so when the breeze moves them, they spin the image).
Slate gets most of his business from word of mouth. He says people contact him when they see his stuff at shows or in people’s houses. He likes that his business is small.
“If it got too big it would cut into my hunting and fishing time,” he laughed. “Right now, this is perfect. I love it. I can make stuff and teach people and actually make a living on it. I may not be getting rich, but I’m having a lot of fun.”
Slate can be contacted for freelance work and shows at 662-497-4228. To take one of his classes at Taste of Art, they can be contacted at 662-368-6707.0