Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Manitoulin Art

I first heard of porcupine quill boxes a couple of years ago on Bev Wigney's blog, Burning Silo. Quills are embroidered into boxes made of tree bark, and sweetgrass is often used to finish the edges. Native Americans have done quill art for thousands of years but there are few left who are proficient in the technique. Manitoulin Island has a handful of quill box artists and their work is sold in local stores for a handsome price. I looked for the boxes after reading Bev's post and was surprised to find prices starting at over $100 and going into the $1000s of dollars for larger pieces. Many have very intricate designs including animals, birds and landscapes. Porcupines were hunted for food and the quills were used for clothing and crafts. Today, their quills are obtained by throwing a blanket over a porcupine;- the quills stick in the blanket, and the artist literally has a sheet of quills with which to work. (source)

We went to a store on the nearby reserve to look for a warmer shirt for me to wear on our "summer" holiday. It was raining outside so we browsed through the shop looking at the wide selection of native arts and crafts. The owner opened the case of quill boxes and started telling me about the five quill box artists whose work was featured there. I mentioned that buying a quill box was something like investing in a Royal Doulton figurine.

He said, "In another generation there will still be new Royal Doulton, but there will be no more quill box artists."

I don't know if his prediction will be accurate, but his sales pitch was excellent and my husband encouraged me to buy one I liked. I chose a more traditional design that featured plenty of porcupine quills and a the flower of a trillium, the provincial flower of Ontario. I should have asked the name of the lady who made this particular quill box and plan to inquire the next time I am there.

There are other small shops on the island which sell the work of local artists on consignment. Bruno Henry is a native artist who works with many different mediums. I bought this hand painted water colour greeting card in Manitowaning. Other non-native artists make their home in this remote spot and are inspired by the natural beauty and history of the region.

The proprieter of the shop told me he has customers who return and buy a quill box each year for a collection. I am not convinced that I need to collect them, but am glad to have one as a unique keepsake.


  1. The quill box is an outstanding investment of great beauty. I remember seeing them in Wisconsin as a kid on birch bark. Quills are hard to work with.

  2. Oh, that is a lovely box, one I'm certain you will treasure for years to come. Your husband sounds a lot like mine...encouraging me to buy something I would otherwise have passed over because of price.

  3. Which reminds me that I saw a porcupine by the roadside the other night. At least I think that's what it was although it could have been a beaver. It was dark and the sighting was brief.

  4. Ruth,

    Native artistry is amazing. Are you coming to the Pow Wow this year? It is this weekend.

    The quill box is amazing. I've seen them before and they are expensive, but well worth it. I'm glad your husband encouraged you to buy one.

    I've missed some posts and enjoyed catching up. I'm not sure why those cows would run toward you. Cows don't usually act aggressively, only bulls.

    Enjoyed all the photos. The sunset is amazing. I'm sure you enjoyed your time at Manitoulin even if you did have a couple of scares. I detest snakes and am not sure if I would have waited around to take photos. lol I have had a run in with both a water snake (when I was a child) and a dog. No fun at all.

    Have a great day.

  5. It would be a great shame to see any traditional skills lost! I'm more familiar with the aboriginal artisans of the plains, but I've never seen any sweetgrass incorporated into their items. That's one of my favorite smells - sweetgrass. I think you did well to get on of those boxes.

  6. Hi Ruth.....it sounds like an investment to me. The artwork is incredibly beautiful.

    To have just one is special........

  7. Thanks for your comments. I will count my Quill Box as an investment piece. And the sweetgrass has a lovely smell.

    AC, I have yet to see a porcupine, dead or alive and am not so sure I want to see one up close.

  8. Ruth, porcupines are rather adorable amble along creatures. They have noses like velevet, which I got to pet when an animal keeper. And, it's hard to imagine how many quills they have, millions I would guess. A friend gave me a road kill and I tried to remove as many as possible before it stunk too bad.

    Enjoy your box.

  9. That is fascinating art Ruth. I've never heard of the quill boxes. Nice that you got one as a souvenir, esp. since they are few and far between.


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