Sechelt's Jessica Casey sits at her kitchen table almost every day to work on an art form that she finds peaceful and therapeutic - cedar bark weaving in the First Nations tradition.
The results of her work, baskets, purses, hats and mats, all made by hand using few tools and raw materials from the cedar tree, will be on display and for sale at the Harbour Gallery in Madeira Park when her show opens July 2. The 38-year-old mother of four children grew up in Egmont, then moved to Squamish where she met her husband, raised a family and worked as a recreation aide with the elders of the Squamish Nation. One day, just two years ago, a weaver gave a craft lesson to teach the group the traditional cedar weaving methods of the ancestors. Casey made a tiny mat in a twill weave and knew right away she was hooked on the art. She sought out books on the subject, finding a gold mine in Hilary Stewart's book, Cedar, that illustrates how the First Nations people put the versatile material to many uses. Books about basketry and a visit to a museum in Campbell River also inspired her. Soon, she was making all sizes of baskets that could be used for many things, ancient and contemporary. "The kids use them to pick berries," she says. "But you can store your CDs in them, too."
She also makes dainty, square purses, lined with fabric, adorned with a feather or abalone shell, traditional flat-topped, conical hats and mats for the table in the shape of fish. One of her first projects was a cedar bark skirt that she made for a friend who dances at the longhouse in Squamish. She has also crafted a ceremonial rattle using scallop shells threaded on a cedar strip. Most of her regalia and costumes used in longhouse ceremonies are not for sale. Casey learned how to strip the cedar tree of its bark in such a way that it doesn't hurt the tree.
"You only take the width of two hands," she says, showing a cascade of gold and wine red bark strips that she and her family have gathered from the woods.
"See that colour?" She points to a rich maroon that occurs naturally. "I love that colour; it makes me happy."
The giant strips must be halved into a suitable weaving width, while other narrower strips are used for twine. Then, it is soaked in the family bathtub because it must be woven while it is wet. The cedar can be stained to black if it is soaked in rich, black mud for about three months, or it can be turned almost purple by boiling it in ammonia. Casey makes another traditional item, cedar bark capes with otter pelt lining. The capes are very practical, warm and water repellent. Unfortunately, the capes will not be ready in time for the Pender Harbour show.
The artist has no formal art training, but feels very supported by her family and peers. "The Squamish people believe in me," she says. Her goal is to keep learning. "Some of the older work is so fine. I hope the art won't be lost." The show runs July 2 to 16 every day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Harbour Gallery in Madeira Park. The opening reception is on Saturday, July 2, at 2 p.m. A drummer friend will play a welcome song for the public.