Kelly Church of Hopkins, a traditional Anishinabe black ash basket maker, has been awarded $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, which she will use to pass on her cultural heritage. (Photo courtesy of Richard Church)

Hopkins woman weaves a future for cultural basket making

Wins 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellowship
By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

Kelly Church, of Hopkins, who comes from an unbroken line of Anishinabe black ash basket makers, is a recipient of the 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellowship—the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts.

The National Endowment for the Arts selected Church for not only her expertise and dedication to passing on a cultural art form but also for preserving for another generation the trees the basket material is made from.

She will receive an award of $25,000 and be honored in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 26.

Church has an experienced master’s eye for selecting the best black ash tree to create a wide variety of baskets, from traditionally designed black ash baskets to whimsical strawberry and blueberry blossoms.

“Black ash is the silk of the woods,” Church said. “It’s amazing what you can do with its straight bark once you’ve pounded and popped out the growth rings.”

Found in swampy areas, the tree is stripped layer by layer and cut into splints. Its preparation takes much longer than the weaving itself.

Church learned the cultural tradition as a member of the Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band (Gun Lake Tribe) of Potawatomi and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa.

She studied the Odawa language from her paternal grandmother and learned black ash basketry from her father Bill Church and her cousin John Pigeon.

“The Gun Lake Band of Potawatomi family is well known for making baskets for generations,” she said. “We have pictures of family making baskets back in 1919 and my grandmother always said, ‘We’ve been making baskets before cameras were made.’”

Church quickly realized her personal mission was to bring people together to harvest the trees, process the logs and personally design baskets—all while learning patience, commitment, beauty and pride in the Native tradition and culture.

To refine her form, she received an Associate of Fine Arts degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan.

She also taught the art form to her daughter Cherish Parrish. Church’s brother Sean is also passing on the tradition to his son.

Church’s family harvests and processes all of the materials from the woods and forests in Michigan. In 2002, when the Emerald Ash Borer was discovered in the state, it also threatened the cultural art form.

With support from the National Museum of the American Indian, Church coordinated a symposium to teach other black ash basket weavers about the Emerald Ash Borer and advocated for the collection of ash seeds to ensure the future of black ash basket making.

“Today, black ash has been nearly decimated in the mitten but not quite as bad in the U.P.,” she said. “Seeds are the only way to bring it back.”

Church’s advocacy for the survival of native traditions has involved many national and international art programs, exhibitions, and work with government agencies such as tribal and U.S. Forest services.

She also offers fiber arts and birch bark biting workshops.

“Birch bark is like white paper—you take 15 to 20 layers folded down to one and bite down on it with your teeth,” she said. “It’s like making a paper snowflake but I only know how to do dragonflies, butterflies and turtles.”

So what will she do with her $25,000 award?

“Whatever my art desires!” she said. “I’ll be holding traditional teaching camps wherever people ask me to go.”

This week, Church was doing just that at the Jijak Foundation youth camp in Hopkins.

She teaches workshops throughout Michigan, Canada and Wisconsin. In late July she’ll be teaching a workshop at Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. When she’s not teaching, Church shows at museums and galleries.

Although she will not be showing at the Gun Lake Tribe’s Sweetgrass Moon Pow Wow at the Jijak Camp in Hopkins on July 14-15, her cousin and mentor John Pigeon will. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend as the Potawatomi culture is shared through music, dance, food and crafts.

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