PEI

Artist uses bark to pass Mi'kmaq tradition to younger generations

An Island Mi'kmaq artist is doing her part to honour her ancestors and cultural values through an ancient art form using birchbark in her quillwork.

'It comes to me in dreams'

Melissa Peter-Paul and her father Junior Peter-Paul test to see if the bark on this birch tree is ready to harvest. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

An Island Mi'kmaq artist is doing her part to honour her ancestors and cultural values through an ancient art form using birchbark in her quillwork.

Melissa Peter-Paul started doing quillwork in 2014, but it was the work of her great-great-grandmother that first got her interested.

"She has a lot of her pieces in the archives today," she said. "I've been able to look at all of them and get a lot of my inspiration."

Peter-Paul incorporates porcupine quills, sweet grass, spruce root and birchbark in her quillwork.

She usually harvests bark at this time of the year, when it's the most pliable and comes off the trees the easiest.

But she said the unusually cool, wet weather has prevented her from harvesting P.E.I. bark.

"P.E.I. doesn't really have the best birchbark trees, I think because we're surrounded by so much water. So it's always been a struggle to find what I need here," Peter-Paul said. "I was able to harvest in Cape Breton and I was able to harvest in Pictou County."

Timing is also important so bark can be harvested without damaging the trees.

"We're looking for birchbark trees that are good healthy trees, and then there are certain features about the tree that I'm just going to keep to myself that we're looking for," she said.

"Before I even get to that point where I'm ready to harvest, you know there's a lot of teachings that were passed down to me and there's protocols that I have to do beforehand.... I'm taking a look at the tree, I'm feeling it and then I make the cut. If it's ready, then it's going to tell me it's ready. But, if it's not, I just leave the tree and I move on."

The birchbark is used as a base or fabric. Porcupine quills are inserted or stitched into the bark to create shapes and patterns.

Peter-Paul incorporates traditional materials such as porcupine quills, spruce root and birchbark in her quillwork. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

If it is harvested correctly, Peter-Paul said it can be gathered in a way that will not cause permanent damage to the tree. 

"I'm really inspired by the older pieces of quillwork and I like to stay true to my ancestors' designs," Peter-Paul said. "It comes to me in dreams, like the different styles and stuff like that and colours."

Some of Peter-Paul's quillwork is currently on display at Receiver Coffee in Charlottetown until July 12. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

An exhibit of Peter-Paul's quillwork is now on display at Receiver Coffee on Victoria Row in Charlottetown until July 12.

In the meantime, she hopes to begin harvesting Island birchbark in the coming weeks, as soon as the weather begins to warm up.

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