Internationally recognized Eastern Woodland artist, Julia Marden, looks to her native Aquinnah Wampanoag roots as a source of creative inspiration. Weaving together the ancient stories and traditions of her people with nature’s finest materials, she handicrafts some of the most incredible 17th century basketry around. An equally accomplished painter and beadwork artist, we were lucky to get the chance to collaborate with her to bring her beautifully painted gourds and authentic beadwork designs to life in our Fall prints. Here’s what we learned about her in the process.
What brought you on your path to becoming an artist?
I have always wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember. My first art was made from found items around my home. My dad was a carpenter and did a lot of woodwork. I would use his scraps of wood and curly-cues from his shavings, things like that. I also loved to comb the beach and my yard for treasures, making magical collages.
What kind of artist would you describe yourself as?
The natural world has always inspired me. Today, I specialize in Eastern Woodland Art.
You are best known for your 17th century style twined basketry. How did you come to cultivate a passion and skill for this traditional art? Who taught you?
Back in 1992, I started work at a natural history museum named Plymouth Plantation as an interpreter at the 17th century Wampanoag home site. There I learned to create period works of art that my ancestors have made for generations. It was a wonderful experience to spend time in our traditional Wetu (Wampanoag home) and cook traditional food over an open fire while wearing traditional cloths and learning our traditional arts.
Tell me a bit about the history and significance of twined basketry, and why you felt it was so important to bring this age old artform into the modern era.
Twined basketry is an ancient form of weaving. It’s found all over the world going back as far as 7,000 BCE. It was nearly a lost art form in the Americas unfortunately due to disease, war and reservations. We went from living to surviving, so it’s extremely important to keep the knowledge and not let it be lost to history.
Can you tell us a bit about the technique of twining?
The method of twining is the twisting of wefts around the warp. Two wefts are used to twist around the warp, making a variety of designs. In the Eastern Woodland territory, we would use corn husks, grasses, rushes, bark fibers and cordage made from native plants such as milkweed, dogbane (Indian Hemp) and false nettle. We also used porcupine quills and moose hair false embroidery.
Along with your accomplishments as an internationally acclaimed weaver and painter, you created a line of miniature dolls called Eninuog (“the people”) that are representative of the 17th century Wampanoag community. What was your intention behind this concept?
I wanted to create a doll that represented Wampanoag people at the time of contact. My dolls are wearing the traditional dress of the 17th century. The clothing is crafted from deerskin and decorated with painted designs. Additional ornamentation consists of glass trade beads and various other ornamental objects. Designs on the face and body of the dolls represent either paint or tattooed designs.
Can you describe the distinct style of Eastern Woodland art? What are some of the common symbols, motifs and messages?
Wampanoag territory covers Southeastern Massachusetts including the Islands of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Eastern Rhode Island. The Wampanoag region is part of the larger Eastern Woodland territory which extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the East to the Mississippi River in the West, as far north as Canada, and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in the South. I’m from the Aquinnah Wampanoag Nation which is located on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. We are known for our beautiful clay cliffs. We have a wide range of designs inspired by our environment including geometric, floral, people, animal, 4 direction and tree of life designs to name a few. Living on the ocean, we have access to many types of shells, the most famous being the Wampum which is made from the hard shell clam called Quahog. We also use seeds, bone, copper as well as wampum to decorate ourselves.
What, aesthetically speaking, sets this style of artwork apart from that of other tribes in nearby regions?
Geological location—our access to the ocean, to our local plants, animals and minerals. We made different types of cordage and dyes derived from local plants giving us a variety of cordage and dyes. We used a variety of minerals and fish guts for paint, and many varieties of shells to decorate.
As a Native artist today, what role do you feel you have in educating others?
I’ve been teaching nearly as long as I’ve been weaving. It’s extremely important to pass on knowledge, especially to the young. I feel it’s my duty as a cultural bearer to do so. It is such an honor to have this knowledge and it is my responsibility to pass it on. It is also important to educate the public where the education system is lacking in their teaching of native history and art.
Whose work most inspires you and why?
I’m inspired by the art of my ancestors—the incredible knowledge they held and how skilled they were with the materials they used. Some think of ancient peoples as being primitive when actually they created extremely fine works of art that can’t be reproduced in the same way today. I can’t help but to be in awe of my ancestors and am very humbled to be following in their footsteps. I’m also inspired by personal stories such as my father’s deep sea fishing adventures, which I relay through my twined basketry.
You were raised in Falmouth, MA and spent a great deal of time in Vineyard Haven on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. How did growing up in the presence of such a strong Native community like Aquinnah help shape your cultural identity? How has it influenced your art?
There is something truly special about walking on the same land as my ancestors did and growing up with such a powerful family and tribal members. I am truly blessed and draw inspiration from it all.
Now you call South Ryegate, Vermont your home and have your own business there, Bluejays Visions. How did you come to choose the name Bluejays Vision? Is there any cultural significance in the name?
I was given the name Bluejay Weaving by a traditional Chief in a naming ceremony. “Bluejay” because of how fierce they are at defending their young, and “weaving” because of my basketry skills. I wanted to honor the name I had been given when I opened the store. The name Bluejays Visions seemed appropriate.
We are so excited to be featuring your designs on our fall graphics, both of which are inspired by your beadwork and painted gourd ornaments. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the original pieces?
The designs I use in my painting are based on 17th century designs. When painting, I let the gourd itself tell me what design to paint. Sometimes I hold them and a design will come to me, while others take longer to decide and I have to put them down and pick another one.
What is your most important artist tool… the one thing essential to your workflow/creative process?
My creativity and my hands. Cordage is just cordage until I transform it into a work of art.
What’s your next big project?
I’m working on a full size Traditional Turkey Feather Mantle. It’s a twined cape covered with turkey feathers. It’s something a person of high status would wear. I’ve wanted to make one since I learned about them, but I hadn’t felt ready until now. I made a doll size one first.
Shop the Julia Marden x Tea collection here.