Indigenous artist uses birch bark biting to heal after residential school, cancer

June McCallum-Gareau’s first exhibition at Grace Campbell Gallery in Prince Albert.

June McCallum-Gareau’s first exhibition is at Grace Campbell Gallery in Prince Albert

June McCallum-Gareau does birch bark biting in front of some of her designs. (June McCallum-Gareau/Submitted to CBC)

June McCallum-Gareau says when she sits down to make traditional art it's therapeutic. The residential school survivor and cancer survivor is showcasing her first exhibit of birch bark biting and caribou tufting at the Grace Campbell Gallery in Prince Albert, Sask.

"When you do the art everything else is like, you just concentrate on the art. I feel happy doing it and time goes really fast," McCallum-Gareau said. "Time just slides for me, I don't think, I'm not in stress. I get to think about the art."

McCallum-Gareau is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation and learned traditional art from her mother. She picked up beading and moccasin making quickly, but it wasn't until later in her life that she began the birch bark biting and caribou tufting.

"Birch bark biting was just about a lost art at one time," McCallum-Gareau said.

"That's the one I want to pass on to the young people."

One of June McCallum-Gareau's birch bark biting designs. (June McCallum-Gareau/Submitted to CBC)

An artist who is birch bark biting takes a piece of the bark and peels it, McCallum-Gareau explained. The bark is then folded four or six times before biting begins.

"You visualize the picture you want to make in your mind, you start biting. I can do butterflies, dragonflies, ladybugs, and I started doing owls and birds," she said.

As for how that works, McCallum-Gareau said she doesn't really have an explanation, it's about practicing the visualizations.

"It took me two years to develop this. I threw away a lot of biting," she said.

Another birch bark biting design. (June McCallum-Gareau/Submitted to CBC)

Caribou tufting involves tanning a hide on one side. Then the hide is cut and coloured. McCallum-Gareau said the artist puts the hide on a canvas background before using sinew and special scissors to create designs like flowers or butterflies.

June McCallum-Gareau's caribou tufting designs. (June McCallum-Gareau/Submitted to CBC)

McCallum-Gareau said she is very happy with the response her work has received during her very first exhibition.

"It makes me feel really happy and I feel like I have accomplished something in my life to pass on when I'm gone," she said.

McCallum-Gareau's exhibit runs until Feb. 24 at the gallery in the J.M. Cuelenaere Library.