Helping communities across the state connect their heritage arts and traditions to local development, education, and active citizenship
Johnnie Ray Francis
Warren County, NC
When Haliwa-Saponi artist Johnnie Ray Francis was a child, he and his siblings learned to work hard and be resourceful. He started helping with farm work when he was four or five years old and recalls that “When we grew up, we had to build our own toys.” Today, Francis uses his lifelong talent for working with wood to carve walking sticks and traditional wooden weapons.
Some years ago, health issues forced Francis to retire. He took the opportunity to spend time in the woods, as he had in younger days. At a friend’s encouragement, he also turned to woodcarving, gathering branches and vines that he found on his walks in the woods and turning them into carved implements. Francis has since learned that his grandfather and great-uncle were both makers of walking sticks, although he does not remember ever having seen their work.
Many of his walking sticks bear a traditional snake motif, created both by carving and using a wood-burning tool. His inspiration for the pieces’ decorations often come from the inherent characteristics of the wood itself. “Most of the time when you cut it, what it’s going to be is already there,” he notes. He also makes tomahawks, bows, and clubs using a variety of other natural materials in addition to wood.
Francis carries on traditions of gardening that he learned growing up. He keeps a vegetable garden within the concentric curves of a pair of large circular rock walls that he constructed. The walls were a personal innovation rather than a traditional method, but he finds that they keep heat in and deer out, allowing for especially successful growing seasons. Francis also maintains grape vines and knows how to make wine following a technique that his mother taught him.
Johnnie Ray Francis considers his work in traditional arts to be an integral part of his Native American identity. Once, he remembers, an acquaintance asked him, “Have you quit building Indian crafts?’ to which he replied, “How can you ask the Indian such a thing as that?”