Neatening up the reference files in his Peaks Island studio one evening, artist Scott Kelley came face to face with three photographs that looked back at him and propelled a journey toward becoming the published author of a children’s book. Like many artists, Scott curates a huge collection of reference images. Since he had been painting a series of Wabanaki elders, a photo of a bear, a photo of a Penobscot man wearing a top hat, and another of an elaborate Mi’Kmaq (also Micmac) chief’s coat were strewn about. The juxtaposition of these three images sparked his remarkable painting of a black bear, dressed in all of his finery (see photo). That first inspired painting led Scott to author the children’s picture book, I am Birch, a moral tale about a birch tree stump forthcoming from Islandport Press in April.
Hearing Scott reminisce about his boyhood summers on a lake in the Adirondacks, it’s not hard to understand his fascination with woodland creatures and trees.
“I remember walking on soft pine needles and the trees dropping pine cones. But birch trees were my favorite. I like how birchbark is stronger than the trees themselves. The trees rot, but the bark goes on. We used to make mother’s day cards from the bark. I collected piles of it.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Scott’s extensive body of work–exhibited from Maine to Florida to Tokyo–includes a series of birchbark paintings.
After creating the bear, Scott kept going and painted a watercolor series of rabbit, squirrel, deer, beaver, and more, all in large-format (55″ x 48″) and dressed in Wabanaki style finery.
“I grew up in a community near a reservation in New York state where a lot of Native Americans were living. I’ve always been interested in Native American culture. Since I moved to Maine many years ago, I’ve been interested in Wabanaki culture and the Speck collection at the University of Maine. I started painting this series of animals even though I didn’t have an audience for them yet.”
Scott said that he often writes a narrative for his paintings so that they have “a world to inhabit.” When he wrote a world for the Birch series paintings to inhabit, he turned to the Gluskap legend. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Gluskap (variously spelled as Gluskabe, Glooskap, Gluscabi, Koluscap) is a Wabanaki heroic figure whose adventures have been passed down for generations and provide origin stories and cautionary tales.
“Glooskap came first of all into this country…into the land of the Wabanaki, next to sunrise. There were no Indians here then… and in this way, he made man: He took his bow and arrows and shot at trees, the basket-trees, the Ash. Then Indians came out of the bark of the Ash-trees.” (Molly Sepsis, Passamaquoddy in Charles G. Leland, Algonquin Legends (1884)).
Gluskap drawings by Passamaquoddy artist Tomah Joseph (1837-1914), in particular, have helped immortalize this oral historical tradition. Scott connected with one of these tales; he said,
“I liked the Gluskap legend about how the rabbit got its ears. That inspired this story about a birch tree stump.”
I asked Scott how he navigates the landmines of “cultural appropriation” that non-Native authors and artists often face when they are inspired by the culture of indigenous or otherwise marginalized groups. Scott said,
“My paintings are based on portraits of Wabanaki people and culture that are out there already. I felt that I could do the job with utmost respect. It would be a shame not to draw from other cultures. Where do we draw the line? What do we not listen to?”
Having lived near a reservation, Scott understands the lack of resources Native American communities face and why it’s important that his work gives back. When his collection of Birch paintings went on exhibit at the Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland last summer, interested collectors awarded him a grant to print his narrative as a book for the first time.
“The catalogue functioned as a way to keep the painting together once they had been sold and dispersed. But the collectors said to me, ‘Pay it forward.’ I’m interested in setting up a fund for Native craftspeople who don’t have the money to buy materials. It’s a surprisingly difficult task, but that’s what I plan to do,” Scott said.
Those who are fans of Scott’s artwork can look forward to him penning more “worlds” that his paintings can inhabit.
In the next Peaks Island Press article, Scott shares how being a father shaped I am Birch and he recommends some of his favorite children’s books.
Patricia Erikson blogs about Maine, travel, and writing from a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, follow Patricia on Instagram at @seashorewrite or subscribe to Peaks Island Press in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com