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Fiber artists learn aboriginal art form of bark biting

Kathy Belt bites into a folded piece of birch bark to imprint a pattern. Saturday members of the Twisted Stitchers Fiber Guild educated themselves on the aboriginal art form. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 3
Marleen Olson concentrates as she peels thin layers of bark apart. The women found the thinner the layer, the easier to bite. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 3
An intricate pattern emerges from a multi-folded piece of bark. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)3 / 3

A group of fiber artists gathered Saturday to see if the bark was worse than the bite.

It was probably a tie.

"Does it taste like lutefisk?"

"Mine tastes like chamomile!"

The Twisted Stitchers Fiber Guild embarked, if you'll pardon the pun, on the Native American art form of bark biting Saturday, making intricate patterns in birch bark.

"Some will peel off," said Kathy Belt, about harvesting bark to work on.

"You can take a knife and score the tree to get (sections of) bark off."

"Don't score the tree all the way around," she cautioned. "If you go through the cambium layer it can kill the tree.

"Most of this came off my firewood," she said of the pieces assembled in the middle of the table.

She peels a parchment-thin layer of bark off the inner bark, folds it, and imprints her teeth marks on it, making permanent indentations.

Other artists assembled around a large table follow suit.

What emerges is a sampling of intricately lacey art works. Snowflakes and stars seem the predominate patterns.

"When you think of the Native American culture, their signs are all geometric," said Sandie Carstens.

"Yay! I got a diamond," an excited biter exclaims across the table.

Sometimes using a single tooth, sometimes using uppers and lowers, the women bite into the layers of bark, hoping their dentists wouldn't know what they were up to.

The art form dates back centuries, especially in Chippewa culture. Where birch trees grew, bark biters grew up.

Sometimes the edges of an intricate pattern were singed to provide a border.

Birch bark was initially used as a design sketch or template for other appliqués, according to history. Before women appliquéd onto baskets or clothing, they'd use their incisors to make a pattern. Eventually bark biting became its own art form where it adorned canoes, scrolls, containers and architectural accessories. Now it is mostly preserved as wall art.

The Twisted Stitchers envisioned incorporating the designs with other types of fiber art: knitting, crocheting, embroidery, beading and weaving.

The group brings a multitude of skills to the table. Members take turns sharing their expertise.

"We don't necessarily teach," Belt said. "We share information."

Belt had read about the practice and wanted to share the information, claiming no special expertise.

The women pass their works around the table to exclamations of envy.

"Whose teeth are those? I want those teeth!" one member exclaims.

"I've got TMJ so I can't clench my teeth," bemoaned Phyllis Maxwell of her dentally challenged skills.

They hold the samples up to the light, inspecting their work. Tiny patterns and beads of light show through.

"I made a bunch of stars out of birch strips," Carstens said of her earlier experimentation. "I keep them in a glass container."

But the women would like to keep the indigenous art form alive, even if it puts a bitter taste in their mouths.

"Let's pass that around!" Belt says to Carstens." You have a running stitch."

"I don't know what I've got," Carstens said, making a face as if she'd just swallowed a bitter pill.

"I think I'll put a lady's slipper panel on this," Jan Holt says, scrutinizing her art.

It's an art form where vampires might be welcomed.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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