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Review: Shared Passion: The Richard E. and Dorothy Rawlings Nelson Collection of American Indian Art

The Mokuck, a distinctively shaped birchbark basket seen in many variations throughout Native Indian art, arouses a viewer's curiosity and admiration.

The Mokuck, a distinctively shaped birchbark basket seen in many variations throughout Native Indian art, arouses a viewer's curiosity and admiration.
"Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous," murmured a woman as she leaned over a display case massed with the birchbark containers at the exhibit of Native Indian art now on display at UMD's Tweed Museum of Art.
Broadly triangular-shaped and sewn of one piece of birchbark, these Woodland Indian containers were originally designed to store foodstuffs, sometimes buried in the ground. Some are decorated with scratchwork; others have quillwork on them.
These and other baskets and containers, beautifully organized by style and material, including birchbark scratchwork, willow, quillwork, split ash and decorated birchbark, are the heart of a lovingly assembled collection of Native American art which includes contemporary visual art, tourist art, bead and quill work (primarily by Woodlands and Great Lakes region native artisans) and historical documents.
Duluthian Richard Rawlings Nelson and his late wife, Dorothy, began collecting art in the 1950s and became well-known as collectors of American Indian art, artifacts and historical material related to American Indian culture. According to curator Peter Spooner, this collection is significant partly because, unlike the more highly collected and documented Plains Indian or Southwest Indian art, one doesn't often have the opportunity to view and appreciate such an in-depth collection of Eastern Woodlands and Great Lakes native Indian art.
The many shapes, textures and techniques of the baskets draw and hold my attention. There is an energy in these pieces, evident even through the plexiglass display cases. Deborah Doxtator's essay in the "Basket, Bead and Quill and The Making of Traditional Art" explains what one senses when looking at the traditional pieces in this show.
"In many families, the knowledge of the processes involved in making baskets, beadwork, quillwork and the 'traditional' activities have been passed down from one generation to another. Each object contains memories of the person who made it, the knowledge of how to gather and prepare materials, the prayers and songs, the philosophies and metaphors for making sense of the world," Doxtator writes.
The older baskets, ranging in age anywhere from the late 1800s to the 1940s, stand out from the newer baskets from approximately 1970 on. Besides some style differences, the older baskets have a patina, a deep richness to their color, that conveys a sense of purpose, particularly in the gathering and working baskets.
Spare and modern in shape and color, one of my favorites is a set of six nesting baskets from about 1910. The native artisan, from northern Canada or Alaska, has skillfully folded over and tucked the birchbark in front like the point of an envelope with a lip of wood and split spruce root rounding the top of each basket.
Other favorites are the willow baskets made by Ojibwe people in the 1930s and 1940s. These oval-shaped, handled baskets are constructed in a way that allows you to see their framework, not unlike the skeletal frame of a wood boat.
The quillwork baskets are splendid with colorful motifs of beavers, birds, flowers, moose, the Canadian flag and geometric patterns.
A particularly striking piece is a 1985 Mishebeshu quillbox made by Ojibwe Maime Migwams of second growth birchbark, porcupine quills, dyes, sweetgrass and cotton thread. The basket's top is designed by contemporary Canadian First Nation artist Carl Beam, a relative of Migwams. His design is based on rock paintings found at Agawa Bay on Lake Superior's north shore depicting a canoe, a star in the sky and the underwater panther, Mishebeshu.
The sense of rich Native Indian past and lively present continuing together is the strength of this exhibition. Go see it and be prepared to spend some time. It continues through Oct. 14 at the Tweed Museum at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Janet Blixt is a free-lance writer and marketing communications consultant based in Duluth. She can be reached by e-mail at Jblixt1035@aol.com .

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