Meghann O’Brien became an artist out of necessity—she needed a basket that would allow her to pick berries with both hands.
“I was really into harvesting wild food,” says O’Brien, whose Haida name is Jaad Kuujus, “and I heard a story about Native berry picking baskets that you could wear on your forehead and it made so much sense to me.”
O’Brien, 37, is descended on her mother’s side from the Kwakwaka’wakw village of Weka’yi T’sakwa’lutan (Cape Mudge) and the village of Kiusta, Haida Gwaii. Her father’s lineage is Irish. Raised in Alert Bay, a village off the north coast of Vancouver Island, she spent her youth snowboarding professionally and working on her father’s fishing boat. She became drawn to weaving about a decade ago.
“I got someone who worked on my dad’s fishing boat to help me harvest bark to weave a berry picking basket. I worked on it myself a bit and then went back to Alert Bay and got some teachers. It was a special time, the cedar tree has been tied to our lives on the northwest coast since the beginning of time, and I feel like weaving that basket, I tapped into all that. It was a special moment in my life—who I was and what I valued and how I thought about the world—and to receive that gift from my ancestors put me in a really special place.”
From learning basketry with weaver Kerri Dick on Vancouver Island, O’Brien expanded her focus to Yeil Koowu weaving (Raven’s Tail), studying with Sherri Lightbown in Haida Gwaii, before apprenticing under master weaver William White to learn Naxiin (Chilkat) techniques. In February 2014 she completed Sky Blanket, a combination Raven’s Tail/Chilkat robe that saw O’Brien working with mountain goat wool harvested from the Coast Mountains by friends. For the artist, it was a very different experience from using Merino wool factory-harvested in New Zealand.
“I wanted to work with it as a way of learning and connecting with the original material for these art forms,” O’Brien said in an interview with BC Studies, an academic journal from the University of British Columbia. “The intention of approaching… wanting to learn from that material or animal or substance was different; there was a different desire and respect that went with it. And when I got it all washed, it was the most light, almost air-like material, and if you held it, it was instantaneously warm. It’s like radiant heat almost, so amazing.”
The blanket’s beauty, craftsmanship and story quickly gathered attention. It was displayed in the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in Vancouver before hitting the road for exhibits in Campbell River, Haida Gwaii, Zurich, Kansas City—and finally Winnipeg, for curator Jaimie Isaac’s Boarder X, an interdisciplinary exhibit of works from Canadian Indigenous artists who snowboard, skateboard or surf.
Boarder X was a popular show—so popular it was scheduled to tour other cities and museums across Canada. For O’Brien however, this posed a problem.
“Originally my intention for the piece was to share something that was really broad, more based on a world view,” she says. “But after years of it just shipping from institution to institution I didn’t want to loan it out anymore. Last year my family had a hilugwila (a feast to honour and name a new baby) at the big house in Campbell River. My grandmother is 83 now and that robe [Sky Blanket] fits her the best, I didn’t want to risk not having it there.”
In their search for a way to have the artwork in two places at once, O’Brien and Isaac connected with Dr. Kate Hennessey, Reese Muntean, Conrad Sly, and Dr. Hannah Turner of Simon Fraser University—all researchers working on how technology can help museums preserve, protect or repatriate their collections. Over the course of four months, the team used 3D laser scanning and photogrammetry to create a complete digital “clone” of O’Brien’s artwork.
The photogrammetry process took hundreds of photos of the blanket that were loaded into a networked software so multiple computers working simultaneously around the world could create a digital point cloud—essentially millions of tiny polygons that map out the surface of Sky Blanket. The juxtaposition of ancient techniques and cutting edge technology appealed to O’Brien.
“I got excited watching [Conrad Sly] putting it into the computer and building it, stitching it together,” she says in the BC Studies interview. “When he turned it on its side and it looked like a mountain range, that was so cool to me.”
While Sky Blanket has not been 3D printed, the Boarder X exhibit does feature a looping video that showcases each stage required for the creation of its digital rendition, which O’Brien, Sly, Turner and Hennessy have named Wrapped in the Cloud—a verbal play on the connection between the climate, clouds and mountains of the original blanket, and the digital manifestation of the object as a point cloud. For O’Brien, this technology may solve some of her larger artistic dilemmas.
“I sometimes struggle to make sense as I move through the commercial art world while also navigating the contemporary problems of the past. It seems strange to me to make something that is meant to be worn and danced in and then see it only as art in a display case. At the same time, I recognize that Native art has struggled to be recognized as art for so long. So I’ve seen this whole process as a step towards something very positive. 3D printed versions of historical artifacts in museums means the originals can come home.”
At the same time, O’Brien isn’t ready to hand everything over to the computers just yet. “I think about my own practice and learning… The act of creating, it’s so tactile. If we give that all away to the machines for the purposes of understanding the world, it can remove a bit of that purpose.”