Masinaasta waskway

Yesterday a photographer was in touch about a Cree artist I profiled years ago, Angelique Merasty Levac, who singlehandedly regenerated the age-old art form of masinaasta waskway (bitten bark). The photographer is also an archaeologist who is based all over the world, particularly in the middle east, but she grew up in Alberta and remembers the dental pictographs from her childhood. They still haunt her imagination.

I know how she feels. I discovered them in 2003 at the National Gallery of Ottawa as part of an installation of indigenous art, Art of this Land, and I almost missed them. They were in a tiny Plexiglas case in a room with a soaring Group of Seven mural. Once I’d seen them, I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and my obsession with this ephemeral art form culminated in an odyssey to Prince George to meet the best-known practitioner of the art. I’d failed to get a commitment from a magazine for the profile I wanted to write and was only going to be in Vancouver for work for a week. Merasty Levac wasn’t easy to reach and we hadn’t set a time for an interview, so I just showed up in her shop one day in late 2007.

Women made masinaasta waskway as they were picking berries, from time immemorial, to alleviate boredom and as patterns for their beadwork. The innermost layers of birch bark, soft as skin, were peeled from the tough outer layers and then folded the way children fold paper to make snowflakes. Their tools were teeth, not scissors. The spatial skill necessary to create the complex designs I’ve seen beguiles me still. Merasty Levac uses no pencil sketches. This is “four frogs.”

Frogs, Angelique Merasty Levac


You don’t really get the full effect until you hold it to the light. Masinaasta waskway are essentially negatives; they need the light to complete them. She made this one for me the day I was there.


bark 2


Bitten bark makes a cameo appearance in The Umbrella Mender, so it’s fair to say I’m still obsessed. This art form seems to do that to people: Merasty Levac herself made a 670 km mid-winter pilgrimage, twice, to learn from the master.