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Art gallery acquires birchbark skirts by local artist Helen Pelletier

The Thunder Bay Art Gallery received support from the Ontario Arts Foundation to get two wiigwas for its permanent collection

THUNDER BAY — The Thunder Bay Art Gallery has received an award for the acquisition of two birchbark skirts made by local artist Helen Pelletier.

The skirts, or wiigwas, will become part of the gallery's permanent collection.

The Ontario Arts Foundation provided the gallery with funding through the Elizabeth L. Gordon Art Program Acquisition Grant.

Art gallery curator Penelope Smart commented that Pelletier's skirts are one-of-a-kind.

"I'm excited to see where Helen's practice takes her," Smart said.

Titled Alyssa Memengwaa Ikwe (2023) and Nevaeh (2023), the intricately etched skirts are named after two young women from Thunder Bay — Alyssa Lentz and Nevaeh Morrisseau, close family friends of the artist. 

Pelletier, from Fort William First Nation, has worked with birchbark for twenty years, and harvests it in the early spring and summer from Anemki Wajiw (Mount McKay).

She expressed her gratitude to the Ontario Arts Foundation for appreciating and acknowledging the work and dedication that goes into creating Anishinaabe art, and also thanked the art gallery and Smart.

"You see the beauty, wisdom and value in wiigwas. Miigwech for allowing Indigenous artists' visions to come alive," Pelletier said.

While her art is rooted in Ojibway imagery, teachings and traditions, the art gallery said Pelletier continues to grow her connection with wiigwas "to awaken new designs of wearable art including backpacks, hats and skirts."

She often completes her works with home-tanned hide and other natural materials sourced from friends, family and fellow artists.

The OAF Elizabeth L. Gordon Art Program Acquisition Grant assists public art galleries and museums in Ontario with growing their permanent collections, encourages initiatives that increase the public's knowledge of collecting, and supports community engagement between galleries and the public.

"We are fortunate to steward a world-class collection of art in Thunder Bay, and the addition of Helen's work continues this strong tradition of timely acquisitions and support for the important work of artists in our community," art gallery executive director Matthew Hills said.

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