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March 14, 2014

Weaving and Protecting a History: A Conversation with Basket-Maker Kelly Church

Kelly Church baskets2
Baskets made by Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Ojibwe). Photo courtesy of the artist.


So many Native American artists are generational, learning long-held artistic techniques from family elders and passing them on. This Saturday, March 15, will be an all-in-the-family event in part, when Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Ojibwe) showcases her basketweaving skills during a day of demonstrations by Anishinaabe women artists at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Church will be joined by her daughter, Cherish Parrish (Match-E-B-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi), and by Jamie Brown (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi), Church's second cousin—both accomplished basket-makers in their own right.

Also featured at Saturday's event are painter Dawn Jackson (Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan), bead- and quillworker Naomi Smith (Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation), and basket-maker Whitney VanderWal (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi). The demonstrations are part of a series of programs happening throughout the day to complement the exhibition Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakeson view at the museum in New York through June 15.

Kelly Church's family has long been involved in weaving, using black ash wood to make cultural objects since the 1850s. Collectors' records confirm this lineal history, although photographic evidence came much later. "We made baskets before we made cameras"—these are the words that Church remembers passing from her "gramma's" lips to her ears. "We have a picture of my family working with a log and weaving as a group from 1919."

Church is extremely proud of her heritage. And why not? She was born into the largest black-ash basketmaking family in Michigan, so black ash has surrounded her since childhood. She learned to harvest it from her father and her cousin John Pigeon. Church later attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, the University of Michigan, and Western Michigan University. At college and in graduate school, she focused on painting, sculpture, and other forms. But it's nearly impossible to deny one's place in tradition. She returned to full-time basketmaking about 15 years ago.

The people of the Great Lakes region have made black ash a staple fiber in their weaving for centuries, says Church. "As Natives, we use what is available to us in our surroundings." Michigan's abundance of swamps and wetlands allow black ash trees to grow well there, she explains. Church works predominantly with black ash, basswood, birch bark, white and red cedar bark, sweet grass, cattails, and copper. She says her family owns a huge copper kettle once used for feasts and making maple syrup. "The purest copper in the world comes from the Great Lakes." Church began weaving copper into her baskets in 2008, and has recently begun to weave in silver, aluminum, brass, and gold embellishments on top of plaited black ash underlay. 

Church is mainly known for her woven strawberries and her black ash bracelets, but she also weaves frogs with lily pads, checkers games played by strawberry versus pinecone pieces, or ash wood frogs against cedar frogs. Most recently she began weaving baskets in the style of Fabergé eggs that open and contain other items within. While there are many new, intriguing ideas she wants to explore, Church also remains faithful to tradition, creating recognizable forms such as traditional baby baskets, black ash bark baskets, and market baskets. She carves Anishinaabe cradleboards and creates birch bark bitings, a form at which few people in North America are skilled. The technique involves using the eye teeth to bite traditional designs into thin layers of birch bark that are then woven into a variety of decorative objects. Church will demonstrate this process as well at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this weekend.

What is it like to work with black ash? "Black ash is so pliable," says Church. "You can do just about anything you set your mind to with it." Church is amazed by the work of her daughter, Cherish Parrish. One of Parrish's sculptural baskets that takes the shape of a pregnant human figure—part of her Next Generation series—is on view in Before and after the Horizon. Parrish is able to create her tightly woven baskets because of the ease with which the material can be manipulated.

Beyond the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes is all about the history of the varied art forms found in the area from the past to the present. It makes one ponder the kind of relationship the Anishinaabe people share with the black ash. "Black Ash baskets have always been woven according to the needs of the basket-makers at that time," Church explains. "So, in the past they were needed for gathering, carrying items from the market. . . . [People made] fishing creels, baby baskets, and sewing baskets. Later, they made fancier baskets to sell to tourists, as money was needed for staples—food, homes, and cloth for clothes." 

She says modern-day indigenous people of the Great Lakes make baskets for their own utilitarian purposes. Today's needs are somewhat different, but all in all, tradition finds its place with necessity. Fancy baskets are meant to be eye-catching and pleasing. As in days of old, they are made to sell on the collectors' market to help support the maker's family. "We are influenced and live in a much different world than our ancestors, but we honor them in all ways still," Church says. That includes harvesting trees by family, processing the materials together, and weaving baskets for use and shoonya (money). "We still lay down our saama (tobacco) and give our thanks. Our basket styles and shapes are influenced by our everyday lives."

While black ash basketmaking has endured for generations, it is now an endangered by the arrival of the emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive species of beetle that came to the Great Lakes region in the 1990s. Church is on a crusade to help preserve basketmaking for future generations by documenting the process, as well as how to identify and properly harvest and prepare black ash for weaving. Over the last deacde, she has been speaking at conferences to spread the word about the growing infestation and its impact on black ash basketweaving.

It is a tough battle with a long road ahead. "The EAB will kill 99 percent of the ash trees in the US, and collecting seeds now is the only way this tradition will continue in the future. We will end up skipping a generation in this process while we wait for EAB to die out or move on." Church says it will be necessary to replant the seeds in about 20 years, after which the new generations will have to wait another 30 to 50 years for the trees to grow to basketmaking size. A large part of her education effort involves kids who will have to reestablish the art form when they are 50 or 60 years old. Church will hold her fourth national conference to educate people about the EAB this fall.

At the same time, Church and other artsts have helped to keep basketweaving a living and ever-evolving art form. Basketweaving is gaining popularity in the Native American art world, and fine examples are highly sought by collectors. While adhering to tradition, Church says there is room for improvisation. She advises beginners who are interested in learning to look around to find materials with properties that can be used for weaving. "I weave baskets with vinyl blinds and ribbon, metals, paper . . . whatever is available and can be used!" She adds that the nature of weaving lends itself to relaxation. 

Church says she is excited about returning to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this weekend. "We enjoy working with people and sharing our culture." The opportunity to show work and demonstrate skills at museums ". . . broadens people's knowledge about Natives and helps them to see the different styles of basketry, paintings, and art that we have." Beautiful as they are, basketmaking and other artforms tell a great deal about a people, their geography and past.  Humbly she expresses that demonstrations educate people on the nuances between different Native American cultures and serve to celebrate each unique culture and its arts.

Before and after the Horizon organizes objects using six curatorial concepts that frame entry points into Anishinaabe culture, including the idea of religion. When asked about the derivation of her surname, Church said "My last name is a mystery, but I did have a grandfather who was our Native preacher for all of his life . . . [His name was] Reverend Lewis White Eagle Church."

The artist demonstrations will take place at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in the second floor Rotunda from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m Saturday. In addition, at 11 a.m. in the museum's West Gallery, Brooklyn-based Canadian artist Maria Hupfield (Wasuaksing First Nation) will present a site-specific 30-minute performance art realization as a "Living Tour Guide." At 2 p.m. in the Diker Pavilion, David Penney, curator of Before and after the Horizon, will moderate "A Dialogue on Anishinaabe Art," a panel discussion with artist and cultural theorist Robert Houle (Salteaux), author Gerald Vizenor (White Earth Nation), and curator Gerald McMaster (Plains Cree and member of the Siksika nation). Finally, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., visitors will be treated to the New York premiere of Robert's Paintings, a documentary by Shelley Niro (Mohawk) examining Robert Houle's life and work. A discussion with Houle will follow. Both the film and the discussion will take place in the Diker Pavilion. For more information about these and other programs celebrating Anishinaabe art, see the museum's calendar of events.

—Paul Niemi

Paul Niemi is an arts and culture writer and a Museum Ambassador at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The quotations in this piece are from Paul's recent email interview with Kelly Church.  

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