The story weaves together like this. What we have here is an 1880's era quillwork chairback. It is approximately 14" by 12". The piece is made from a piece of birch bark, which has been elegantly and methodically decorated with dyed porcupine quills in a traditional and symmetric design. Despite being over 130 years old, the chairback is in exceptional condition. The piece was created by first nation Indians on the east coast of of North America. Quillwork items, especially in this condition, are extraordinarily rare and is greatly prized by collectors.
An important point here is that porcupine quillwork is an art form completely unique to North America. It was the primary way native peoples decorated everyday as well as special occasion items including cradles, log carriers, chair seats, clothing, and boxes before glass beads became available and affordable. Examples of quillwork have been found from Maine to Alaska; the earliest known quillwork was found in Alberta, Canada, and dates back to the 6th century CE. The exact tribe that made this stunning chair back was a member of the Eastern woodlands First Nation Peoples and they lived predominantly in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Maine. Although quilling is an all but lost art today, there are some native artists from the Chippewa and Micmac tribes who continue the tradition of quilling, and focus on the production of birch bark quill boxes, pictured here on the left.
So how did porcupine quills become art? Carefully, for sure! Artists first soaked the quills in order to make them more flexible. The traditional way to prepare quills for decoration was to hold the quills in your mouth (barbed end pointing out) BUT DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!! Once a quill was softened, the tips were snipped off, and the quill was flattened. Traditional quill-flatteners include polished bone, antler or wood. The quills were then colored with natural and organic dyes and then woven in and out of perforated birch bark, much like embroidery.
I would like to thank Cathy Consentino of Timber River Farm for sharing this remarkable and fascinating piece of first nation history and art history with us. Timber River Farm, located in New Brunswick, Canada, specializes in native American artwork and period antiques. Cathy is a regular dealer at New England Antique Shows throughout the year and will be attending the upcoming event on October 15th and 16h. Contact Cathy at 506-538-7400 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in the chairback featured in this column.
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