Indigenous

'Timeless' 1960s Elsipogtog craft work featured in new book and documentary

The work of a 1960s Mi'kmaw crafts guild is featured in a book and film titled Wabanaki Modern.

Wabanaki Modern highlights Mi'kmaw crafts guild

John Stephen Dedam is a celebrated Mi'kmaw artist whose work is featured in an art exhibition, book and documentary film called Wabanaki Modern. (submitted by Emma Hassencahl-Perley )

The work of a 1960s Mi'kmaw crafts guild is being recognized in a new book and documentary launching Saturday in Fredericton. 

Artists from Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick made prints, ceramics, and textiles as well as hasty notes and other novelty items. 

"The work is beautiful and to me, it's timeless," said Mona Francis, who helped translate the book Wabanaki Modern into Mi'kmaw. 

Francis is from Elsipogtog, 57 kilometres north of Moncton, and hopes the projects inspire another craft guild to form in the community. 

Mona Francis with a photo of Mi'kmaw artist Michael William Francis, whose work is featured in Wabanaki Modern. (Submitted by Mona Francis )

The Micmac Indian Craftsmen (MIC) guild formed in 1962 after Chief Anthony Francis wrote to the provincial handicrafts guild saying the community had a lot of talent and something should come of it. The community received grants and the MIC formed.

The MIC struggled to maintain funding so staff was always in flux, but 10 artists were prominent fixtures for the workshop until it folded in 1966. They included Michael William Francis, Jane Alice Dedam, Edward Alexander Francis and John Stephen Dedam. 

Michael William Francis was a Mi'kmaw artist from Elsipogtog and fans say his work was ahead of his time. (submitted by Emma Hassencahl-Perley )

Vienna Francis, Stephen Dedam's daughter, remembers growing up with the smells of turpentine and linseed oil in her house. 

"He didn't only work it, he lived it, so we had to live it as well," said Francis.

She said her father was humorous, a storyteller and creative. Francis said her father even built his own office desk with copper rings. 

Her father died in March but Francis said he would have been proud that his work is being featured in an art exhibition, book and film.

The book and documentary, both titled Wabanaki Modern, launch this Saturday at Fredericton's Beaverbrook Art Gallery, where an exhibition of the group's art runs until February.

John Leroux, manager of exhibitions, and Emma Hassencahl-Perley, adjunct curator of Indigenous art, began researching the work of the MIC about three years ago. Hassencahl-Perley co-authored the book with Leroux, and it  is available in English, French and Mi'kmaw.

Hassencahl-Perley, who is Wolastoqey from Neqotkuk, Tobique First Nation, said the work is stunning and influential and she's grateful the community of Elsipogtog shared their stories.

"The love and effort and success that emanated from the community is still present today," said Hassencahl-Perley.

Emma Hassencahl-Perley co-authored the book Wabanaki Modern with John Leroux. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

She was surprised to learn that many women in the community helped the guild by sewing burlap sacks to handle the influx of demand for the MIC's hasty notes. She said this story speaks to intergenerational success of Elsipogtog. 

Sandy Hunter, who produced the 22-minute documentary, hopes the film shines a light on just how talented the MIC was. 

"When I saw the work, I was like 'Wow!' and I had no idea it existed," said Hunter.

He said the art may be 60 years old but it looks like modern graphic design. The works blend contemporary visuals with traditional Mi'kmaw stories like Glooscap and the whale.

"I think it will inspire others to contribute to creating in the province," said Hunter. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Oscar Baker III is a Black and Mi’kmaw reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation. He is the Atlantic region reporter for CBC Indigenous. He is a proud father and you can follow his work @oggycane4lyfe

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