Blackfeet Artist to Demonstrate Ancient Quilling Technique

Deborah Magee will show how she creates with the help of ‘the humble porcupine’ on Sept. 6 as part of Whitefish Gallery Nights

By Andy Viano
A bracelet created by Deborah Magee using the traditional quillworking technique. Courtesy photo

The traditional native art technique known as quilling will be on display during Whitefish Gallery Nights on Sept. 6 at the Stumptown Art Studio.

Blackfeet artist Deborah Magee, who has been quilling for 20 years, will show how she takes the quills of a porcupine and uses them to embroider clothing, create jewelry and more, replicating a technique her ancestors practiced for centuries.

Magee called quillwork a “sacred art,” and she said the discipline combines deliberate technique with a deeply spiritual component.

“There’s the whole thing about how, for quill workers, you can’t have a lot of conflict and chaos and strife in your life,” Magee said. “It teaches you how to live because you don’t see conflict and chaos and drama; you see a peaceful life.”

In order to manipulate the quills, each one must be individually moistened, dyed and carefully molded into place. Quills traditionally were used to adorn hide shirts or create earrings, bracelets and other items. The practice became less common with the advent of glass beads in the mid-19th century, but artists like Magee believe continuing the tradition is an effective and important way to share Blackfeet culture and history.

“I just want people to appreciate what quill work is and how ancient it is,” Magee said. “For people to realize how you take something like the humble porcupine and (create).”

Tribal elders must grant quill workers, Magee included, the right to practice the art, and in the years since she has seen her work displayed in museums around the world, including at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Magee’s demonstration will run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and she will be one of more than a dozen Blackfeet artists with works on display at Stumptown Art Studio in conjunction with Blackfeet at HeART, an organization committed to providing supplies and opportunities to Blackfeet artists of all ages. There will also be demonstrations in ledger art and beading at the studio on Sept 6.

Whitefish Gallery Nights are held on the first Thursday of every month from May to October, with special exhibits and demonstrations at 13 different galleries. For more information, including a full list of participating galleries, visit www.whitefishgallerynights.org.

To see more of Magee’s artwork, search for Blackfeet Quill Work on Facebook.