Nunne-Hi or Immortals

Artist: Dan L. Corley

Immortals was inspired by legends of “people who live anywhere,” a race of spirit people who inhabited the highlands of the old Cherokee country. The spirit people only allowed themselves to be seen at times of their own choosing. They were fond of music and dancing and frequently helped lost travelers find their way. The Nunne-Hi were also known to help defend the Cherokee people during times of war. Some associated them with the Little People because they were seen so rarely and just in glimpses, the long fringe of the mask evokes images of the long hair or beards worn by the Little People.

Artist Dan Corley uses fired clay to form mask shapes that he then adorns with leather, feather and beads to create evocative images that conjure legends of past times. His path to becoming a mask making artist is as winding as a journey up a mountain, and every bit as interesting.

In the late 1970s, Corley was living in Durango, Colorado and working with a silversmith. “I loved it,” he said. At the time, Native art was on the rise and a conversation with his mother changed Corley’s perspective. “I told my mom, ‘I wish I was an Indian.’ She said, ‘You are.’” Corley was surprised to find out he had been an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation his entire life.

As a means to explore his heritage through art, Corley began studying artifacts: bows, quivers and other traditional pieces. About ten years ago a friend asked if he could make a mask. Always willing to try something new, Corley took on the challenge. Soon other people saw it and he got more requests for masks. “I fell in love with making them,” Corley said. Now, nearly all his time is devoted to making masks.

Though modern elders may be unaware of the cultural tradition of masks, Corley’s research indicates their usage surpassed tribal affiliation. “I’ve never found an Osage mask, but every other tribe used masks, for medicines, for ceremonies, to scare away evil spirits.”

Though his pieces have a very contemporary feel, Corley uses traditional methods. “I try to make them in the way they were made,” he said. Corley’s masks show the power and mystery of man’s connection with the earth, the spiritual strength of faith and the oneness of all things. “The sense of reverence and the language of mystery reflected in each original mask is the essence of their unique beauty.”

Corley’s masks are all unique, one-of-a-kind originals. He keeps track of the designs on his computer and is careful not to duplicate a combination of feathers, beads, leather or paint. His work has been recognized with awards at many competitions. Recently, one of his masks, Reflection, won the grand prize at the 2012 Trail of Tears Art Show. His work has received numerous other recognitions and is prized by collectors around the world. Immortals was purchased for the Oklahoma Judicial Center Collection.