Saturday, June 11, 2011

Quilled Birchbark A Forgotten Curiosity

 Quilled bark objects were a staple in the tourist trade. As Europeans came to North America sometimes they would seek out objects made by North American Indians to take back home to add to there curiosity cabinets and to provide proof of their travels and adventures in a far away land. Some of the Most well known ethnographic collections in existence today are due to this practice.  One result of all this traveling and acquiring of objects can  muddle and confuse the provenance of the original piece and makers. A birch bark box bought on the St. Lawrence doesn't quarantee a orgin of the object. With all the trading among the various tribes in North America objects an materials travel a amazingly long distance at times.  Long before the arrival of Europeans the Aboriginal peoples of the Northeast had developed great skill in the use of birchbark to construct things like canoes and wigwams to storage containers and cooking utensils.Quilled birchbark objects were however a contact event fusing aboriginal knowledge with entrepreneurship and artistry of Quebec nuns. In 1714 during a outbreak of epidemic disease an Urusuline nun named Mere St. Joseph journeyed from her convent at Trois Rivieres to Quebec City to receive instruction in the preparation of medicines from the nursing sisters of the Hotel Dieu. In the convent's Annals written about five years later we read that as a gesture of reciprocity Mere St. Joseph offered to teach the two of the nuns the Ursuline specialty of embroidery after first teaching them to practice on church vestments she introduced them to bark work; "And then Mother St. Joseph demonstrated before us the making of boxes in the Indian style (boetes sauvages) in order to teach us how to work in bark; this inspired in several of the sisters the desire to try to make them, and they perfected the art so well that, the next year their works were sought after as examples of proper workmanship and good taste,of the type that, since that time, we have sold every year for small sums, and that furnishes us also with things to give as presents to people to whom we are obliged."  During the eighteenth-century Urusuline Nuns were earning income from the sale of moose hair-and quill embroidery  bark objects.The Huron and Iroquoian peoples also seemed to excel at this art form, as seen from evidence of surving objects. Perhaps the highest pinnacle of this art can be seen in the many known quilled birchbark chairs that have survived and stood the trials of time, it is reported that the majority of these chairs were made by the Micmac people.   These art forms have seemed to be loss and not widely practiced by today's contemporary artist. With the lack of practitioners today my Wife Mariah has become inspired to relearn and recreate some of these objects. We live in a region lacking in White Birch trees she has had to contact friends and family in other regions to import the bark itself but other materials such as Spruce trees,Basswood grow in our area  and are readily available we also grow our own sweet grass which is also seen on original quilled bark objects used as bindings and borders. So with the materials gathered and my experience with natural dyes  she decided to start out with a relatively small piece it is a Birchbark pouch based from a  a original housed at Canada's Museum  of Civilization they have labeled the original maker as Ottawa? It is a unique and special piece as there are very few of these kind in existence. Mariah has spent long hours drawing out the pattern and meticulously poking the holes and pulling the quills thru. I can tell you first hand that she earned this piece as her hands were poked continually by the Quills drawing blood on occasion. She spent many many long hours constructing this piece I'm suprised by what she produces taking care of a family with two young children isn't easy as most women can tell you. This piece is a one of a kind piece fitted for any Curiosity Cabinet or Collection. It will be on display in Gettysburg June 16-18Th at the History Meets the Arts art show.

Made by Mariah Blake 

Original Quilled boxes 1890-1910 Walpole Island area

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