Bar Harbor, Maine, can become the Santa Fe of the Northeast

Jeremey Frey separates each layer of ash, removing one thin layer after another until he’s left with a stick held together in a small bundle ready for weaving. The above basket is the result.

Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor to host American Indian art market showcasing Wabanaki work

By Ramona du Houx

Wabanaki artists came home from Arizona this March with significant awards for their creations from the 60th annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market. Wabanaki refers to the regional tribes of Maine - the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Abenaki, Maliseet and Micmac.

Geo Neptune, a Passamaquoddy, won first place for natural fibers and cultural forms in baskets at the Heard Museum Guild. courtesy photo

The Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix, AZ draws nearly 15,000 visitors and more than 600 of the nation’s most outstanding and successful Native artists.

Bigger still is the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico, the largest indigenous art fair in the world. These marketplaces made organizers at the Abbe Museum think about how they could start their own to showcase Wabanaki work.

Nearly all the major American Indian art fairs are in the Southwest or Northern Plains.

The Abbe Museum’s President thought it’s about time Wabanaki artists had their own venue. So, the Abbe has arranged a three-day juried American Indian art market from May 18 to the 20 in downtown Bar Harbor that will create more exposure for Indian art and artists from Maine and the Northeast.

 “It’s a really big deal for Maine and New England,” said Abbe Museum President and Chief Executive Officer Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko. “Wabanaki art forms have been thriving and innovating for centuries, but it’s only been in the past decade that Wabanaki artists have been getting global recognition.” 

The Abbe Museum, which specializes in the history and contemporary culture of the Wabanaki Nation, expects about 100 artists.

“For whatever reason, the Northeast has always been underrepresented,” said Dawn Spears, a Narragansett and Choctaw Indian who is working with Abbe Museum to make the fair happen. “The Northeast needs a market that will bring people from the outside here. The Abbe is in a position to fill that void and remind people there are still Indians here creating amazing work.”

Spears is the executive director of the Rhode Island-based Northeast Indigenous Arts Alliance which supports American Indian artists by sharing resources and opportunities.

“This will showcase homegrown talent,” said Spears.

Photo: Jennifer Pictou's Honorable Mention winning clutch

“The goal,” said Catlin-Legutko, “is to highlight the works of Wabanaki artists while creating more economic opportunities for them to practice their art full time. Bar Harbor can become the Santa Fe of the Northeast. It’s our moment, our opportunity.”

Geo Neptune, a Passamaquoddy, won first place for natural fibers and cultural forms in baskets. Sarah Sockbeson, a Penobscot, won second place in the same division, while Jennifer Pictou, Micmac, won Honorable Mention in the division for personal attire.

“All I really wanted was to make a good showing for my ancestors and let them know I am keeping our art forms alive,” said Pictou."I’m truly humbled at the outcome and grateful for the opportunity to show what a contemporary Mi’kmaq bead artist can do in a forum where there are so many fantastic and accomplished bead workers from many tribal nations.”

Pictou lives likes to create art that makes people think. At the same time, her art is rooted in deep traditional ways like storytelling. Taking inspiration from her ancestors’ visual work while combining elements from other eras in both Native and non-Native imagery she celebrates her ancestral voices by using traditional tribal forms and infusing them with her own creative ideas.

 Sarah Sockbeson won second place for her basket. Photo at right

Sockbeson harvests and prepares all her own material from scratch, believing that the selection process is an art unto itself. After she selects a brown ash tree, it is cut, the bark is then pounded continuously, split, gauged (cut), dyed, and woven. Her goal is to create a fresh approach to a timeless art form, and she’s also won awards from the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico.

Wabanaki artists Jeremy Frey, Theresa Secord, Sockbeson, Neptune, Emma Soctomah and the late David Moses Bridges are a group of Wabanaki artists whose reputations are growing internationally. For the past six years, they’ve won top honors at the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico

Frey, a 12th-generation Passamaquoddy basket maker works in the basement studio of his Orono home. In 2017 Frey he was among seven Wabanaki artists showing at Santa Fe. He took nine baskets with him and sold all of them. He won a first-place prize and honorable mention, adding to an honorable mention that he won during his first time in Santa Fe in 2016. Frey learned to make baskets as a teenager working alongside his grandfather. He sees his work as a continuation of a family legacy. 

“Everything that I do is an adaptation of what my grandfather did,” said Frey proudly. He’s thrilled that a market is coming to Maine. “I think it’s fabulous that our traditional art forms are starting to get more recognition.”

Frey’s baskets don’t use glue or nails, but incorporate leather making them unique. Held together by rugged, tight weaves he uses ash, beginning with the harvesting of the trees. He dyes his ash naturally and makes most of his tools. 

“While many basket makers weave with ash, I weave with braided ash. I cut ash splints from the tree down to a thin enough width that can be braided, then braid these into tiny ropes like we normally braid sweetgrass,” said Frey. “I also weave braided cedar bark, which is a material our people haven’t used in baskets for the last few hundred years, but we used to.”

Frey has pieces in the Smithsonian as well as many other prominent museums around the country.

The Wabanaki people and their ancestors have lived in the Bar Harbor area for thousands of generations. In historic times, Bar Harbor was known as moneskatik—the Clam Digging Place.

From about 1840 to 1920, Wabanaki lived alongside other Maine residents, speaking English and retaining their cultural values, and language, but limited to privileges. Wabanaki artists and craftsmen traveled to tourist areas, like Bar Harbor, in the summer to sell baskets and other items to supplement their income. They offered guiding services and often performed traditional music and dance.

The Wabanaki are known as the "People of the Dawnland." The sun rises first in America in Bar Harbor.

It’s a fitting place for the sunrise return of Wabanaki art to its historic ancestral place.

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