Tara Francis is a Mi’kmaq artist from Elsipogtog First Nation. She considers herself a contemporary artist, influenced by traditional techniques and teachings, bringing them forward in new forms and forums addressing the Indigenous voice in a modern world. She considers her work part of her own personal spiritual journey, a blessing to the Wabanaki people, honouring the symbols and traditions of her ancestors.
In 1999 she began attending the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design (NBCCD), where she received her Certificate of Native Art Study and Fine Craft Diploma in Surface Design, going on to obtain an Aboriginal Creation grant from ArtsNB in 2003 to build a body of work inspired by the Mi’k maq Petroglyphs of Kejimakoojik, NS. Her work has been featured on APTN’s Wabaanakik documentary series, as well as various arts columns and magazines.
Her pieces are scattered from Hawaii to Africa, Germany to the Middle East. She has been in countless exhibits including one at Harbourfront Centre in downtown Toronto and the Four Winds One Breath Gallery in Rhode Island. More recently she was featured in the Keepers of the Light Indigenous Arts Exhibit in St. John’s, Newfoundland, as well as being one of three participants in Artslink’s 2019 Cross Cultural Residency, whose work is traveled to various venues across the province. (…)
[Since March 2020], Tara has managed to continue her work, through online gallery opportunities and a very recent Opening at the Gallery on Queen in Fredericton. She is proud to have been a successful applicant of the Collection ArtsNB acquisition program, and two of her pieces have become a part of New Brunswick’s permanent art collection. Tara has shared the tradition of Porcupine Quill art, through workshops and demonstrations throughout Atlantic Canada and Maine. [She has also taught] at NBCCD.
Allan Hudson for South Branch Scribbler: Before we talk about your art, Tara, please expound on the following quote of yours from the Created Here website: “I am very aware that as Aboriginal artists we have a responsibility to pass on our traditions and keep expressing them in a new way. We are not a dead people who exist behind glass in a museum.”
Francis: (…) As I mentioned in the statement above, the responsibility to preserve and pass on tradition to the generations to come, lies within each knowledge keeper amongst us. The past is an important part of who we are as Indigenous artists. However, to study the crafts and images left by our ancestors is only a part of the bigger picture, there must be a deeper understanding of the strife and hardship experienced by our people at the hands of a colonial agenda, and how attempted cultural genocide and continued systematic racism, has carved a deep dark hole in the timeline of our evolution.
As Indigenous artists, we have been given a platform to react and express these atrocities, while at the same time, rummaging through what is left of our rich culture, to identify truth of who we once were as a strong proud race, and bring that into the light so we can stand proud once again, transforming the traditions of the past into the voice of the future. We now live amongst many cultures, here in the 21st century with access to all the knowledge and skills the world has to offer, as artists we can expose ourselves to different mediums and methods of creating and expressing ourselves, in doing so, reaching a global audience and educating them with, our own voices, as to who we are and where we stand in a modern world, holding in our hearts our inherit truths.
Hudson: Your art is not only special in its conception, Tara, but even more exceptional in the materials you use. Quoted as an ancient art, quillwork is not something new. Please tell us about this process and what inspired you to use this original and natural medium.
Francis: The Mi’kmaq people were coined by early explorers as the Porcupine People and included detailed descriptions of the craft in the earliest of journals. Quillwork along with Wampum, eventually began to be replaced with the more readily available glass beads acquired from the French through trade for beaver pelts and other trade goods. I was first exposed to quillwork through my aunt who made beautiful, finely-worked quillwork boxes and panels.
Then, I learned the birch bark insertion method while a student at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, enrolled in the then-called Native Art Study program, which has now evolved into Indigenous Visual Arts. Although I familiarized myself with the technique at that time, it would still take me a few years to truly embrace the craft. After trying my hand at beadwork and other crafts, I was still seeking something deeper and truer to our ancestors.
In the summer of 2004, (…) I took on the endeavour of attempting my first Quillwork basket, having plucked my first porcupine, provided by the unfortunate end that porcupines tend to meet on New Brunswick highways. I acquired birchbark that had once been gathered by my then late grandfather, Anthony Francis. This artform made sense to me, as a visual artist, with my strongest medium having been painting, in the past, I wanted to express myself in a similar way through quills, and I began to explore the craft further and see where I could take it. I started creating butterflies and then eventually took it another step into sculptural 3D form, when I made my first Turtle.
Quillwork is not only something created with your hands, it is a spiritual act, in itself, once comfortable with the technique one can find themselves in a meditative type state, as the hours go by. This is evident in the many workshops I have taught, creating a safe circle for people to learn and relax. After a while, it flows into an open forum where the participants feel open to express feelings and share stories they may otherwise not feel comfortable expressing.
It also reinforces a inherent connection to the land, the act of gathering the birch bark, quills and sweet grass, offering tobacco as symbol of gratitude, this is all part of what goes into the piece you create. I border every piece I make, with a line of Sweet Grass as a blessing to the image I have created, making it a sacred statement to who I am as an Indigenous person.
Hudson: You recently completed a major project, an art piece that took over 400 hours to complete: The turtle. Tell us about this amazing creation.
Francis: It was at a Youth and Elder gathering in Alma, NB, in 2011 while in a talk being presented by Water Protector/ Elder Doreen Bernard that I learned of the Seven Sacred Animal Teachings, a Pan-Indigenous teaching, using the attributes of selected animals to teach of how to conduct one’s self in the world. They are as follows: Eagle – Love, Beaver – Wisdom, Bear – Courage, Kluscap (giant or hero)- Honesty, Wolf – Humility, Buffalo/Moose – Respect and Turtle – Truth.
The truth Turtle holds is that of the Lunar Calendar, and how we would mark the changing of the seasons and natural cycles of the year. A Turtle’s shell, is divided into 13 sections, each one representing a particular moon cycle, the outer rim of the shell is divided into 28 smaller sections, the number of days from one moon cycle to another, also a woman’s natural menstruation cycle, culturally referred to as her “Moon time.”
I have always had a strong connection with Turtles and in learning this teaching was inspired to put aside all other projects, and work primarily on creating a porcupine quill turtle. This turtle was small and took me roughly 100 hours to create, it was featured in several exhibits and was my signature piece for several years. I always knew I wanted to take the teaching further and go deeper into the explanation; I even created a template I presented as part of a demonstration of quillwork, as part of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery’s opening of their new wing. I started the piece but was not satisfied with the size and it went unfinished.
In February of 2019 I was asked to submit an application to a new Cross Cultural Residency endeavour, created by Artslink NB, AAAPNB, and Mawi’arts, to bring together 3 artists, one representing the Indigenous community, one the Anglophone and one the Francophone. We would work together in 3 communities to create our own pieces over a 3 week period. It was then that I decided to revisit my idea, proposing that I create the Turtle on a much larger scale. There was much research involved in discovering the Mi’kmaq’s own teachings of the 13 Moons, and learning the names of each moon, as to accurately represent each one as an image in each of the sections of the Turtle’s shell. I created a template and began with the Maple Sugar moon (fittingly being the moon representing March) and I finished that section under the light of that very full moon. Over the 3 weeks of residency, I would build the foundation of the shell and complete eight of the 13 quilled sections of the Turtle’s back.
It would take me until August 2019 to complete the piece in its entirety along with thirteen name plates depicting the same images as on the shell along with the Mi’kmaq word for each, burned into birch bark. In total the piece took me roughly 500 hours to complete. It then went on to travel to several galleries throughout the province, with the other two artists’ pieces from the residency, ending its journey at the Constellation bleue-Galerie Bernard-Jean in Caraquet in March 2020, where it remained for several months. The opening having been scheduled for the day everything was shut down due to the Covid pandemic. As things began to open it, the gallery opened its doors for limited times for the public to see the work, and a virtual tour was also available.
Grandmother Moon Turtle, as it came to be named, and another piece entitled Monarch, were both submitted to CollectionArtNB as part of their biannual acquisition program. In early July I received news that both my pieces were chosen to be a part of the province’s permanent collection, it is an honour and privilege to join these ranks, along with some of the top artists of New Brunswick. My Turtle will now have the opportunity to travel the provinces and First Nations’ schools and act as the teaching tool she was intended to be.
A few of Tara Francis’ quillwork pieces are currently on display at the Gallery on Queen, 406 Queen St. in Fredericton.
Editor’s note: A longer version of this interview was first published on the South Branch Scribbler website, run by Allan Hudson.