Published on January 24, 2013 by Amy
Kelly Jean Church is an award-winning black ash basket weaver, Woodlands Style painter, birch bark biter, and educator, enrolled in the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
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Kelly Church, a fifth-generation basket weaver, was born in 1967. She grew up in southwestern Michigan. Her mother is English and Irish and her father is Odawa and Ojibwe. Kelly studied the Odawa language from her paternal grandmother and learned black ash basketry from her cousin, John Pigeon. She in turn taught her daughter, Cherish Parrish (Gun Lake Band Potawatomi).
Church earned an Associate of Fine Arts degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2006 and Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan in 2008.
Kelly harvests her own trees with her family in swampy areas of rural Michigan. Preparing materials takes far longer than the actual weaving. She removes the bark from the felled log, and then splits apart the growth rings into finer and finer splints for basketry. The splints are dyed then soaked before weaving.
Her baskets range from the utilitarian fishing creels, market baskets, and bark baskets to traditional, rectangular wedding baskets and whimsical strawberry baskets. She creates experimental baskets, with materials such as copper, photographs, and plastic window blinds – the latter a warning of what the future might look like without black ash trees.
Birch bark biting
Kelly is one of fewer than a dozen birch bark biters. This traditional Great Lakes art form involves biting designs with one’s eyeteeth into folded sheet of young paper birch bark. The bit areas turn a dark brown that contrasts with the pale surface of the bark. Her designs are both abstract and representational, featuring turtles, dragonflies, and other designs.
Inspired by the Woodlands Style of painting created by Norval Morrisseau, Kelly paints characters from her tribes’ oral histories, such as Nanabozho, or the wildlife native to Michigan, such as Sandhill Cranes. She typically works in acrylic on canvas and uses contrasting colors for maximum optical brilliance.
Honors and projects
Kelly has won many awards for her basketry, including the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Award and the 2008 Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Fellowship. In 2006 and 2008, she organized a symposium about tactics to save the black ash tree from emerald ash borer, with funding and support from the National Museum of the American Indian.