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Trash or Treasure: Seminole artist captured Native American life

By Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

The best heirlooms come with wonderful stories that make the past come alive. The two images Jim Haverland recently brought to the Michigan Design Center in Troy had more colorful background than most, something that both interested appraiser Brian Thomczek and made it easier for him to trace the artist behind the works.

Jim Haverland with two Seminole portraits and a Navajo rug.

“My aunt Gladys Marks and her husband Donald of Fort Wayne, Indiana, stayed extensively with the Seminoles in Florida in the ‘60s-70s,” Haverland wrote in the original email asking for an appraisal. “They helped them obtain driver's licenses, and also taught them English. She became very endeared to many of them, including Paul Billie. She had told me that several of Paul Billie’s paintings actually hung in the governor’s mansion in Florida. They traveled in an Airstream trailer that I can still remember vividly. Don owned a camera store in Fort Wayne and was an accomplished photographer, having many photographs published in National Geographic magazine.”

When Haverland’s mother passed away at the age of 95, the two artworks – a watercolor and an oil believed to be self-portraits of Seminole artist Paul Billie – came to him, along with a small Navajo mat that measured 28 by 21.

The web revealed little information about the artist, although some was found on the site run by the Florida Museum of Natural History (floridamuseum.ufl.edu) in Gainesville, which has a basket that some believe is Billie’s work.  “Billie died in his early 40s, cutting short the career of one of the tribe’s most renowned artists. He was best known as a painter, but he experimented freely with other media, including basketry.” It also explained how the tribe arrived in Florida. “The Seminole Indians are a group originally formed by independent people of Creek Indian descent who migrated into Florida during a time of intense struggles in the southeastern U.S…they came to Florida and never left. Their very name, the word Seminole, means “untamed.” For most of their history, the Seminole community has remained essentially closed to outsiders, other than escaped African American slaves prior to end of the Civil War.”

An internet search revealed a few sales through the years, including a watercolor that sold on liveauctioneers.com for $150 in 2009. The description of the work included additional background information, categorizing it as a “Seminole Indian genre painting, 1982. Depicts brilliantly colored patterned clothing on Indian woman pounding corn meal. Paul Billie exhibited at the Younger Gallery and was known for his personal treatment of the heads of Indian men and women.”

Thomczek said that Billie isn’t well-known in the Midwest, but that he may be in more demand farther south. “There’s not a huge market at the moment, but you never know about the future.” He valued the two pieces at approximately $500 and said he would sell them as a collection.

Haverland is still deciding what to do next. “They don’t fit our lifestyle,” he explained. “My mom was a saver.” Thomczek said he should consider marketing them through a Native American sale or contacting the Florida Museum to see whether it might be interested in acquiring the works. That’s on his to-do list, Haverland said. “I’m going to Florida next month and am going to look into it.”

     Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to trashortreas@aol.com. If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.    

About this item

Item: Native American artworks and small mat

Owned by:  Jim Haverland

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated value: Approx.   $500 for art works; $200 for rug