Thursday October 4, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Between the shoulders of the leather jacket, porculine quills, dyed crimson with bloodroot, fold over a stitch of thread and back over another. Yellow quills shape an arc in fine points. In the colors of fall, these quills act half like beads and half like thread, forming finely tapered leaves.

Around the corner, another shirt shows the patterns of growing things. This one is made from photographs: children at school, a smiling gray-haired woman at a picnic, families enjoying an evening outdoors.

Bently Spang, a Tsistsista or Northern Chey enne artist, writer and curator who has shown work at the Brooklyn Museum, has drawn on a tradition among his people, ex plained Maria Ming alone, senior curator at Berkshire Museum. The Chey enne would make a shirt as a gift, to express what they hoped for the one who wore it: protection, pride, the need to come home safely.

Rethink," the Berkshire Mu seum's newest show, gathers contemporary American Indian art ists who explore the world with briliant hues, intent patience, directness and humor.

Curator Margaret Archuleta created the exhibit with Ming alone. Of Tewa heritage, from New Mexico, Archuleta also created an exhibit of American Indian art at the White House. She and Mingalone invited the artists to the museum, and have crafted the show, to let the artists get to know each other and visitors get to know their work.

This fall, visitors can get to know the artists as well. Several of the artists will return to the museum to teach their skills. This weekend, Passamaquoddy basketmaker Jeremy Frey will lead a gallery tour on Saturday and a workshop on Sunday.

Frey's mother first taught him basket weaving, he explained in a phone interview from his home in Maine; his family has kept the tradition for generations. He knew the other artists in the show by name, and he has enjoyed the chance to meet them.

"I was honored," he said. "Any time you meet a new artist, you get a different view of art."

Everyone has their own views on why they make what they make, he said, and his work comes out of the visual, out of line and color and lithe form.

"To me, it's the outward presentation of somethig beautiful," he said. "I'm not thinking about current events or pain or love, but about beauty, about the feeling that beauty can give you."

Beauty stirs an emotion in him, and he tries to translate it. Lately, he added, he has looked for more complicaed ways to shape his art.

"I want to get to the point where people will look at it and say how was this even made?" he said.

In one basket in "Rethink," he has woven strands folded into delicate points, like leaves beginning to dry in early fall -- or fine origami.

"As new as that is," he said, "I've moved on beyond that. I have a new piece evolved from that one."

Within the form of a basket -- a vessel with a lid -- he wants to keep in sight where he came from and to keep current, he said. He began by working with his mother's forms, wooden molds, to shape his baskets. Later he got more from a form-maker, but as he evolved new ideas, he began to make his own. Now he designs each basket from the ground up.

"All baskets have their own personality," he said.

He weaves strips of black ash.

"Black ash is the traditional material," he said. "It is so engrained in the culture that it has creation stories tied to it; it is in the cultural history."

He harvests his own, pounding a log seasoned in water to separate the wood fibers along the grain.

"You don't cut the wood," he said. "You're splitting it along its natural growth."

The pounding removes the weaker areas between the growth years of the wood, and the strands he separates are light, fine and strong.

He works with birch bark, and a sweet grass also burned in ceremonials, like sage. And as he travels and shows his work nationally, he has incorporated new ideas. In the West, he has met cedar weavers, and so he harvested cedar here in the East and braided it like sweet grass. He has also worked with porcupine quills, as inlay.

"It would take hundreds of hours" to make a coat like the leather jacket in the show, said quillworker David Holland, who led a workshop on design with porcupine quills at the museum this past week.

Hol land is Irish and has learned his craft by studying the work of other artists, past and present. He pointed out different stitches and styles, and the fineness of the quills, and the even, careful lines of them.

He finds it powerful to make something beautiful to give to a friend -- to make a shirt that tells a story in its patterns.

How would it feel to wear a shirt, knowing someone has spent months of evenings making it for you and thinking of you? The shirt might remember in every stitch something you have accomplished or felt -- or a time you spent together, on a fall day so beautiful it hurt the heart, with the smell of fall after the rain, and beech leaves in the air.



What: Passamaquoddy basketmaker Jeremy Frey will talk about his work

When: Talk, demonstration Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Basket-making workshop Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Berkshire Museum,
39 South St., Pittsfield

Admission: Saturday talks free with museum admission.

Workshop $95 plus $10 materials fee per basket

Information: www.berkshiremuseum.org, (413) 443-7171