Brought to Light

Biting bark in Prince George: masinaasta waskway

Homemaker’s magazine, June 2008.

The day I visited her in Prince George, BC, Angelique Merasty Levac found time to sit with me at her kitchen table, peel a piece of tender bark, and show me how she makes her art. She needs no sketches. It’s all there in her mind before she begins. As Cree and Ojibwa women have done for centuries, Angelique took a tender inner layer of birch bark, folded it like children do to make paper snowflakes, and used her eye teeth to make delicate designs.

This is bitten bark, an aboriginal art form whose loveliness becomes enchanting when needles of sunlight pierce the holes the teeth made. Although it was a fireside form of entertainment for the women, they also used masinaasta waskway as patterns for beadwork. The pieces of bitten bark are so tiny and ephemeral that you could blink and miss them, and they nearly disappeared altogether when the young generation seemed uninterested in learning.

Angelique was a young mother of three in 1980 when she happened to spot a profile of an artist in a native affairs magazine. She was transfixed: there was her own name, Angelique Merasty, on the magazine page. The world-renown birch bark artist was her namesake, though they’d never met. The elder Merasty, nearing the end of her life and worrying that her art would die with her, told the interviewer that she’d teach anyone who was serious. For Merasty Levac, the coincidence of the names constituted a calling.

“I had this really strong feeling that I should go learn the birch bark biting, no matter what it took,” says the attractive 53-year-old Cree who helped start a bitten bark renaissance. “It was like I was supposed to do it.” Ignoring her husband’s scoffing, Angelique undertook a 670 km odyssey from Uranium City, Sask., to Beaver Lake, Sask., by plane, bus and taxi. It was January, so cold that “your eyelids froze. They laughed at me,” she remembers, her warm brown eyes lively with the memory of Beaver Lake community’s reaction. “They said, you are a very crazy and determined young lady.”

Bundled in heavy clothing, Angelique waded through snow up to her knees to cross the lake. When the elder Merasty opened the door, Angelique introduced herself with a joke, “I’m glad I got here before you lost your other teeth,” then told how far she’d traveled. It turned out that the elder Merasty had known Angelique’s parents. “She was very amazed that anyone would go through all that. Because of all I went through, she did everything she could to teach me.”

Angelique wanted to begin learning immediately. The elder artist said they’d have to wait for the spring thaw, but Angelique was young and impatient, so they traveled far into the woods and brought back logs to thaw on the wood stove. She spent the week at her teacher’s cabin, learning techniques for finding bark and biting pictures into it.

The elder Merasty sent her home to practice, and in three years, she began showing her first pieces in the local native arts centre. She also remembers renting a table at the Bay, where an American writer discovered her and photographed her work for a book he was writing about aboriginal art. As she found more places to sell her art, invitations to art shows began to arrive. These days she is invited to national and international shows, most recently to one in Germany. Last year she was named to Prince George’s Art Gallery of Honour for her contribution to the arts. Besides making art, her life is full: she owns and manages a native arts shop, raises her extended family, and teaches the art to children and adults.

Angelique draws inspiration from the natural world, as her ancestors have done. She favours butterflies, flowers, frogs, turtles, and fish in her compositions, but hummingbirds are her favourite. Her passion and dedication to the art have helped keep it visible on the national and international art scene; some of her teacher’s art has been displayed in the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Angelique quietly persists with a microcosmic art form that might have otherwise been a casualty of modern life, and she counts her art as her greatest triumph. “It took me places I never dreamed of.” She told me that she recently found, among her papers, small folded pieces made by her teacher before she died. “It’s almost like she’s still teaching me,” she says. Angelique desires a similar legacy: her granddaughter’s Cree name, given by the community because of Angelique’s fame, means “little biter,” and Angelique refers to her as the “next birch bark biter.”  She also demonstrates the art in schools. “Sometimes when I do it in the schools I open it up and the kids say, Ooooh, magic,” she tells me. “And then I hold it up to the light.”

 

 

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