The Art of Kelly Church: Preserving Native American Tradition, One Weave at a Time

Photo courtesy of Belatina.com Belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of Belatina.com

In every stitch of artist Kelly Church’s ash weaving lies a piece of memory. Her work is not only iconic and celebrated but also the receptacle of centuries of Native American tradition.

Of Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe heritage, Kelly Church learned black ash basketry from her father, Bill Church, and cousin John Pigeon. Along with her family, Church harvests her own trees from swampy areas of rural Michigan. From them, she creates unique pieces ranging from utilitarian fishing pots, market baskets, and bark baskets to rectangular wedding baskets and strawberry baskets.

As explained by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is currently exhibiting Church’s pieces, the artist uses the natural beauty of the basket to draw the viewer’s attention to key issues for the Native American community.

Kelly Church Egg BELatina Latinx
Kelly Church (Ottawa/Pottawatomi), Sustaining Traditions—Digital Memories, 2018, black ash, sweetgrass, Rit dye, copper, vial EAB, and a flash drive with black ash teachings, Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Richard Church, Odawa-Pottawatomi. © Kelly Church

In her latest pieces, including Sustaining Traditions-Digital Memories, Church draws inspiration from the Fabergé eggs of 19th century Imperial Russia. Deeply rooted in metaphor and tradition, the piece serves as a time capsule for future generations of basketmakers; it represents the past, present, and future of Anishinaabe communities and the integral relationship with their material.

From learning how to select the right ash tree and harvest the wood to creating the slats and intricately weaving them, basket making involves many members of a community engaging with each other and their environment. 

Today, however, the future of Anishinaabe basketry is under threat as access to healthy trees becomes increasingly scarce. An invasive insect species, the emerald ash borer, and climate change have decimated millions of ash trees in the United States. Church and his community now face the possibility that the dwindling supply of materials will affect their traditions for generations.

For Church, each piece is “not just about a beautiful basket; it’s about everything that goes with it.”