Saturday 12 December 2020

Mi’kmaq Artist Tara Francis of Elsipogtog & Fredericton, NB



When you visit Tara’s Facebook page, you will read this:

Sharing the sacred light of my teachings through my creations, in Love and Gratitude.”


On the Galerie Sans Nom website, Tara’s introduction is as follows:

Tara Francis is a visual artist of Mi’kmaq and Irish descent from Elsipogtog First Nation.  In her work, she is reimagining traditional Mi’kmaq teachings with a contemporary sensibility. Tara’s practice includes silk painting, acrylic, and porcupine quillwork. She facilitates workshops, participates in artist residences, and continues to exhibit her work locally and internationally.


It's a pleasure to have Tara as our special guest this week. One thing Tara and I have in common, is our roots in South Branch, therefore making her visit to the South Branch Scribbler even more unique. She has kindly agreed to a 4Q Interview and is sharing photos of her unique and colorful art.



Tara is a Mi'kmaq artist from Elsipogtog First Nation, she considers herself a contemporary artist, influenced by traditional techniques and teachings, bringing them forward in new forms and forums addressing the Indigenous voice in a modern world. She considers her work part of her own personal spiritual journey, a blessing to the Wabanaki people, honouring the symbols and traditions of her ancestors.

In 1999 she began attending the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, where she received her Certificate of Native Art Study and Fine Craft Diploma in Surface Design, going on to obtain an Aboriginal Creation grant from Artsnb in 2003 to build a body of work inspired by the Mi'k maq Petroglyphs of Kejimakoojik NS. Her work has been featured on APTN's Wabaanakik documentary series, as well as various arts columns and magazines. Her pieces are scattered from Hawaii to Africa, Germany to the Middle East. She has been in countless exhibits including one at Harbourfront Centre in downtown

Toronto and the 4 Winds one Breath Gallery in Rhode Island. More recently featured in the Keepers of the Light Indigenous Arts Exhibit in St. John's,Newfoundland, as well as being one of 3 participants in Artslink's 2019 Cross Cultural Residency, who’s work is traveled to various venues across the province. one artist in the contemporary exhibit of New Brunswick artists, Circadian curated by Amy Ash. Over Covid Tara has managed to continue her work, through online gallery opportunities and a very recent Opening at the Gallery on Queen. She is proud to have been a successful applicant of the

CollectonArtsNB acquisition program, and two of her pieces have become a part of New Brunswick’s permanent art collection.   Tara has shared the tradition of Porcupine Quill art, through workshops and demonstrations throughout Atlantic Canada and Maine. As well as instructed at NBCCD.




4Q: Before we talk about your art, Tara. Please expound on the following quote of yours from the created here website. “I am very aware that as aboriginal artists we have a responsibility to pass on our traditions and keep expressing them in a new way. We are not a dead people who exist behind glass in a museum.”


TF: Hi Allan, thank-you for having me as your guest on the Scribbler.   

As I mentioned in the statement above, the responsibility to preserve and pass on tradition to the generations to come, lies within each knowledge keeper amongst us.  The past is an important part of who we are as Indigenous artists. However to study the crafts and images left by our ancestors is only a part of the bigger picture, there must be a deeper understanding of the strife and hardship experienced by our people at the hands of a colonial agenda, and how attempted cultural genocide and continued systematic racism, has carved a deep dark hole in the timeline of our evolution. As Indigenous artists, we have been given a platform to react and express these atrocities, while at the same time, rummaging through what is left of our rich culture, to identify truth of who we once were as a strong proud race, and bring that into the light so we can stand proud once again.  Transforming the traditions of the past into the voice of the future.  We now live amongst many cultures, here in the 21st century with access to all the knowledge and skills the world has to offer, as artists we can expose ourselves to different mediums and methods of creating and expressing ourselves, in doing so, reaching a global audience and educating them with, our own voices, as to who we are and where we stand in a modern world, holding in our hearts our inherit truths.



4Q: Your art is not only special in its conception, Tara, but even more exceptional in the materials you use. Quoted as an ancient art, quillwork is not something new. Please tell us about this process and what inspired you to use this original and natural medium.




TF: The Mi’kmaq people were coined by early explorers as the Porcupine People and included detailed descriptions of the craft in the earliest of journals.  Quillwork along with Wampum, eventually began to be replaced with the more readily available glass beads acquired from the French through trade for beaver pelts and other trade goods. I was first exposed to quillwork, through my aunt, who made beautiful finely worked quillwork boxes and panels, then I learned the birch bark insertion method while a student at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, enrolled in the, then called Native Art Study program, which has now evolved into Indigenous Visual Arts.  Although I familiarized myself with the technique at that time, it would still take me a few years to truly embrace the craft. After trying my hand at beadwork and other crafts, I was still seeking something deeper and truer to our ancestors.   In the summer of 2004 is when I took on the endeavour of attempting my first Quillwork basket, having plucked my first porcupine, provided by the unfortunate end that porcupines tend to meet on New Brunswick highways.  I acquired birchbark that had once been gathered by my then late grandfather, Anthony Francis.  This artform made sense to me, as a visual artist, with my strongest medium having been painting, in the past, I wanted to express myself in a similar way through quills, and I began to explore the craft further and see where I could take it.  I started creating butterflies and then eventually took it another step into sculptural 3D form, when I made my first Turtle.   Quillwork is not only something created with your hands, it is a spiritual act, in itself, once comfortable with the technique one can find themselves in a meditative type state, as the hours go by.  This is evident in the many workshops I have taught, creating a safe circle for people to learn and relax, after a while it flows into an open forum where the participants feel open to express feelings and share stories, they may otherwise not feel comfortable expressing.

It also reinforces a inherit connection to the land, the act of gathering the birch bark, quills and sweet grass, offering tobacco as symbol of gratitude, this is all part of what goes into the piece you create.   I border every piece I make, with a line of Sweet Grass as a blessing to the image I have created, making it a sacred statement to who I am as an Indigenous person.



4Q: You recently completed a major project, an art piece that took over 400 hours to complete. The turtle. Tell us about this amazing creation.



TF:  It was at a Youth and Elder gathering in Alma, NB in 2011 while in a talk being presented by Water Protector/ Elder Doreen Bernard that I learned of the Seven Sacred Animal Teachings, a Pan Indigenous teaching, using the attributes of selected animals to teach of how to conduct one’s self in the world.  They are as follows.  Eagle – Love, Beaver – Wisdom, Bear – Courage, Kluscap (giant or hero)- Honesty, Wolf – Humility, Buffalo/Moose – Respect and Turtle – Truth.  The truth Turtle holds is that of the Lunar Calendar, and how we would mark the changing of the seasons and natural cycles of the year.  A Turtle’s shell, is divided into 13 sections, each one representing a particular moon cycle, the outer rim of the shell is divided into 28 smaller sections, the amount of days from one moon cycle to another, also a woman’s natural menstruation cycle, culturally referred to as her “Moon time”.   I have always had a strong connection with Turtles and in learning this teaching was inspired to put aside all other projects, and work primarily on creating a porcupine quill turtle. This turtle was small and took me roughly 100 hours to create, it was featured in several exhibits and was my signature piece for several years.  I always knew I wanted to take the teaching further and go deeper into the explanation, I even created a template I presented as part of a demonstration of quillwork, as part of the Beaverbrook Art Galleries opening of their new wing.   I started the piece but was not satisfied with the size and it went unfinished. 

In February of 2019 I was asked to submit an application to a new Cross Cultural Residency endeavour, created by Artslink NB, AAAPNB, and Mawi’arts, to bring together 3 artists, one representing the Indigenous community, one the Anglophone and one the Francaphone, we would work together in 3 communities to create our own pieces over a 3 week period.  It was then that I decided to revisit my idea, proposing that I create the Turtle on a much larger scale. There was much research involved in discovering the Mi’kmaq’s own teachings of the 13 Moons, and learning the names of each moon, as to accurately represent each one as an image in each of the sections of the Turtle’s shell.  I created a template and began with the Maple Sugar moon fittingly being the moon representing March, and I finished that section under the light of that very full moon. Over the 3 weeks of residency, I would build the foundation of the shell and complete eight of the 13 quilled sections of the Turtles back. 

It would take me until August 2019 to complete the piece in its entirety along with thirteen name plates depicting the same images as on the shell along with the Mi’kmaq word for each, burned into birch bark. In total the piece took me roughly 500 hours to complete.  It then went on to travel to several galleries throughout the province, with the other two artist’s pieces from the residency, ending its journey at the Constellation bleue-Galerie Bernard-Jean in Caraquet, in March 2020 where it remained for several months. The opening having been scheduled for the day everything was shut down due to the Covid pandemic. As things began to open it, the gallery opened its doors for limited times for the public to see the work, and a virtual tour was also available.    Grandmother Moon Turtle as it came to be named, and another piece entitled Monarch, were both submitted to CollectionArtNB as part of their biannual acquisition program. In early July I received news that both my pieces were chosen to be a part of the province’s permanent collection, it is an honour and privilege to join these ranks, along with some of the top artists of New Brunswick.  My Turtle will now have the opportunity to travel the provinces and First Nations’ schools and act as the teaching tool she was intended to be. 




4Q: Please share a childhood memory and/or anecdote.



TF: In keeping with the theme of the day, I am inspired to relay an encounter I had when I was about 6 or 7 years old, whilst playing on a swing in the little woods of my Grandparent’s farm in South Branch (something yourself would be very familiar with Allan) On this particular day I was swinging by myself as my Grampy worked in the garden just on the other side of the trees, when a creature appeared out of the long grass behind me and started approaching me.  I had never seen anything like it and I screamed, my Grampy came running with the garden hoe and I ran for the house, I later learned that it was a porcupine I had encountered that day.  And in reflection many years later, after learning of what is known as “Spirit Guides” or “Familiars” I wonder if that little guy was a hint as to what would come, or were both of us unaware of the significance this little rodent would have in defining who I would become. It was also at my Grandparent’s farm as a little girl, that I discover my fondness for Birch bark, Granny would give me little scraps of it from the wood pile, I loved the tactile nature of it, the way it felt as I peeled the pieces apart, and the feeling of writing on it with pen, not yet knowing of its significance to my Mi’kmaq heritage or to my future endeavours. 


** I remember your grandfather’s farm quite well.  



4Q: Please tell us about your workshops.


TF: I have been sharing the traditional technique of porcupine quill work for many years, teaching in various settings.  I have worked with Healing our Nations, at various Youth and Elder Gatherings in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, I have traveled to Newfoundland on two occasions to share the craft.  I held monthly workshops at the Fredericton Native Friendship Centre, I have taught youth in Elsipogtog, I held workshops out of my art studio in downtown Fredericton as well as been the Traditional Media Instructor for the Indigenous Visual Arts Program and the New Brunswick Collage of Craft and Design. I have traveled to various First Nations in NB to teach 3 week long courses in Quillwork as well as beading and wampum through an initiative organized by Mawi’art Wabaanaki Artist Collective, and traveled to the Arostook Band of Mi’kmaq in Maine, to share my knowledge as well, I know there are other that I can’t think of at the moment.  As mentioned earlier, these workshops offer more than just the learning of the craft, but brings together a group, in a circle of spirit, safety and creation. 




4Q: As well as quill art, you also are involved in silk dying, paint and do sculptural work. Which is your favorite and why?


TF: It would be impossible for me to pick a favourite, each medium feeds my spirit in different ways; Quillwork is my connection to my people and the land, the process has many steps, the work is very intricate, focused and meditative, involving several hours sitting in one spot.   Silk painting also has a variety of steps in the process, from prepping the fabric to preparing the dyes, transferring the image, stretching the fabric, applying the resist, dying the fabric, rinsing and setting and Ironing. It is a very physical act, and immediate and permanent.  I choose to work with silk for two reasons, one is it’s spiritual context, silk comes from the silkworm and is the substance used to make its cocoon therefore, in a spiritual sense it represents protection,  protecting our spirits while we transform into our highest selves on our journey of life.  Secondly, I use silk to express colour, each colour resonates a vibration, aligning to our chakra centers, triggering moods and healing emotions, not unlike the feeling one gets when seeing a rainbow.  Silk is a vessel for achieving the richest and truest of colours that I wish to convey.  My sculptural work is usually a combination of these other mediums, my way of pushing the bar and expanding an idea, taking it into a three-dimensional form.  Painting and drawing are the foundations of everything else I do it is where I started my artistic journey.  After a long break from making art, or a busy stent of silk or quillwork, I find all I want to do for a while is paint. It offers a nice break from the intricacy and many steps involved in my other processes and gets me back into the flow after taking a long break.   My paintings are usually landscapes, and all my work is inspired by nature, and spirit.   A little blurb on my business card sums it all up; Silk – to offer protection throughout transformation, Colour - to raise your vibration, Quills – to honour the ancestors Paintings – to reach for new horizons.



4Q: Anything else you’d like to share with us Tara?


TF:  I have mentioned a few times, throughout the interview, the topic of spirit and connection to nature.  Spirituality is at the very core of everything I create, not only as an inspiration, but in the act of doing as well.  Creating art is a ceremony to me, the work I create is sacred, and I must be aware of the energy that I am putting into the piece.  I must be grounded and let creation work through me, keeping a positive mind and calm and peaceful heart.  An example of this is my silk scarves, of which I have made hundreds over the years.  It is the stories that have come back to me from the owners, that have really touched my heart, they are not just kept as fashionable adornments but held sacred and have been used to give them strength and healing.   Each piece of quillwork I create is bordered with Sweetgrass, one of the sacred medicines of my people, it welcomes in positive energy. Some of the pieces I have created address painful topics,  and wrapping these images with sweet grass offers a prayer of healing.  My first lesson, in college, about Indigenous art, was that art was not separate from life, but a part of it, a visual communication with spirit, expressing our hopes and dreams.  It is my spiritual practices, as I work for balance in the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental aspects of my life’s journey.  


In closing I feel it is important to acknowledge the many teachers, mentors, guides and inspirations that have played a role on my journey, too numerous to name them all, but one very important one was the Late Elder Gwen Bear, my Native Arts instructor at NBCCD,  her teachings from the Medicine Wheel and Spirituality are with me in every aspect of what I do, and I am so truly grateful and honoured for having known her.   Other instructors such as Harriot Taylor, Sue Juda and the Late Rick Burns, played strong rolls in honing my skills as an artist, with adept attention to detail and mastery of colour, concept and quality.  Sue Jenkins, my high school Art teacher, with her relaxed, laid back approach to teaching, making the world of art that much more approachable.  Carola Knockwood who without her instruction on quillwork, I would not be where I am today.  Last but not least I must mention the influence of my family members, most importantly, my dear, precious Granny, the late, Lucretia McLaughlin, her encouragement from when I was very young played a major role in who I would become, teaching me knitting and sewing, and even ordering the Mail-in art test seen on T.V. on more than one occasion, proudly hanging my little drawings up on the wall, with such pride.  My Dad Stan Francis, who’s little caricatures drawn on napkins I would mimic in my own drawings, taught me more than he could know.   My Metata, Mi’kmaq Grandfather, the late Elder, Anthony Francis, and his wood carvings of birds, and my Aunt Connie Nevin and her meticulous quillwork.  And finally, my dear friend, the late Christine Cooper, who will never know how deeply she touched the heart of a little girl from South Branch when she moved there when I was six years old.  Having worked with the New York Opera and the Muppets, namely as Miss Piggy’s hair stylist, with her larger than life personality, and kind heart, she opened my eyes to the bigger world, and helped a little girl from South Branch realize that she could touch the stars.




Thank you, Tara, for being our special guest this week. Wishing you continued success with your art. 


Thanks again for having Allan, it was my pleasure.


For you readers interested in knowing more about Tara and her art, please follow these links:


  1. Wow, so much talent!!! I am glad I came across your site! I look forward to seeing more of your work and teachings.
    You certainly found your calling!

    1. Thank you for visiting the Scribbler and for your comment. Tara is very talented and I'm happy to have her as a guest.

  2. Such respect for your incredible journey and the wonderous examples of Spirit speaking through art..


Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment.