One of my father’s most treasured possessions is a small, quill basket he got as a boy on a summer vacation at Browns Flat on the Saint John River in New Brunswick.
Today it is in my dresser drawer. The top is falling apart; the porcupine quill work fading. It holds his watch and a bit of his spirit and boyhood joy.
So it is a thrill to see 21st century quill art by The Quill Sisters – Mik’maw artists Melissa Peter-Paul, Kay Sark and Cheryl Simon – in Matues Revisited, a powerful, eye-popping and sometimes political exhibit at the Mary E. Black Gallery to March 13.
(Visitors get a brochure with a free pass to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to continue their conversation with Indigenous art, most concretely in painter Jordan Bennett’s take on Indigenous quill patterns and colours but also in the excellent, second-floor survey show Ta’n a’sikatikl sipu’l/Confluence, of art from the permanent collection by First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists including Ned Bear, Dozay Christmas, Charles Doucette, Sobey Art Award winners Duane Linklater and the late Annie Pootoogook, George Littlechild, Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Alan Syliboy, Bill Reid and Michelle Sylliboy.)
These artists, all connected to P.E.I., straddle the art form of their elders – which was prized by the Victorians in a colonial frenzy – and today’s realities. They gather and work ancient materials of porcupine quills, summer birchbark, sweet grass and sinew to produce fine contemporary art. They use both natural and chemical dyes, which became available to their ancestors in the mid-19th century.
The colours are hot and the skill excellent in an honouring and exploration of traditional patterns as well as an explosion into new designs, forms and meanings.
The artists’ forms are generally not the traditional containers sold for years to tourists; they are framed wall works, a hanging enclosed box or tiny birchbark circles with snowflake patterns in a mobile.
Cheryl Simon, in Indian Act, 2020, literally explodes a traditional pattern. One half of the 8-point Mi’kmaw star is complete, the other is comprised of flying fragments. Don’t let the colour distract you view from the lovely, double-curve patterns in sweet grass on the sides, a pattern common to Mi’kmaw women’s peaked hats.
Melissa Peter-Paul’s playful piece, Pink Chevy, framed in an ornate, candy-pink, floral frame, is the old Mi’kmaw chevron pattern in pinks, purples, blues and whites. Kay Sark makes her bright colours – pinks, neon greens – jump by outlining them in black.
A display of the peeling bark on a birch tree demonstrates how climate change could affect this enduring art form with its patterns going back hundreds, even thousands of years.
You can read more about the Mi’kmaw trio at The Quill Sisters – Melissa Peter Paul Mikmaw Artist The three have a podcast talking about their work, their culture and this show in different episodes on Apple (Epekwitk Quill Sisters on Apple Podcasts).The AGNS hosts a virtual artist talk with The Quill Sisters and co-curator Aiden Gillis March 10, 7 p.m. Register in advance at: https://us06web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZApcuCqqzosE9OiUZ7rEhfAq0vsvwHOlKIc
Here are their favourite things as listed on the gallery walls:
Kay Sark: “When I think about it, I have a favourite thing about everything. When we’re harvesting the bark, my favourite part is the sound. When I’m getting the quills off the porcupine, my favourite thing is seeing all the different kinds and sizes. When I’m harvesting sweet grass, it’s the smell of not just the grass but the salt from the ocean.”
Cheryl Simon: “My favourite thing is when it comes to actually finishing the design, right? When I look at a piece, and it’s done, and it matches the picture in my head. I’m looking at it and it’s just that sense of satisfaction and pride.”
Melissa Peter-Paul: “The whole process doesn’t feel like work. It feels like home. When I finally sit down and start drawing out my designs, it’s like I’ve walked twenty kilometres and I finally got to my grandmother’s table, and she has hot tea waiting for me. You spend your whole young life wondering, what do I want to be when I grow up, how am I going to give back to my people, and this is it for me.”
Matues Revisited is curated by Aiden Gillis and Jordan Bennett; gallery hours are Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. To 4 p.m. Free admission.
In The Kekina’muey/Learning Room there is a dedicated programming space with educational materials and everything you will need for a drawing activity that makes you think about symmetry.