IAIA - Institute of American Indian Arts

Wanesia Spry-Misquadance

Winner of the 2013 IAIA Alumni Award at the Santa Fe Indian Market

Wanesia Birchbark

Wanesia Spry-Misquadance

Wanesia Spry-Misquadance (B.A. ’05) is the winner of the 2013 IAIA Alumni Award at the SWAIA Santa Fe Indian Market with her jewelry work. The award, which includes a $500 honorarium, was reintroduced for the 2013 Indian Market after its inception in the 1990s by IAIA to recognize the influence IAIA alumni have on the Indigenous arts in one of the largest Indigenous art shows in the world. A panel of IAIA alumni and faculty looked for original work that showed a mastery of medium, skill taught at IAIA. To be eligible for the award, an alumni artist must identify as an IAIA alum at the SWAIA Indian Market registration and submit a piece for judging.

Spry-Misquadance’s winning piece, Sacred Seed, was a birchbark, silver and gold vessel that showcased her dexterity with metal and her unique designs that combined traditional birchbark biting with metalsmithing. Spry-Misquadance, of the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe, is working toward her M.F.A. in Metals from the University of Madison-Wisconsin, one of the top-ranked metalsmithing programs in the country. She received her B.A. in Museum Studies with a minor in Studio Arts from IAIA in 2005, where she studied with renowned professors emeritus Chuck Dailey and Lane Coulter. Spry-Misquadance recently sat down with the Alumni Program Director Chee Brossy to talk about her work and time at IAIA.

Why did you choose to study Museum Studies and Jewelry at IAIA?
I’ve always been into 3D art. At IAIA, I got interested in jewelry and in the classes taught by Lane Coulter. But I also wanted diversity in my education and so museum studies was my backup. I was interested in both. I wanted to create a dialogue for both the artists and the curators.

Sacred Seeds and Roots

Sacred Seed

When did you start using birchbark in your art?
I’ve been working with birchbark all my life. Coulter recognized it and asked why it wasn’t in my shows. The truth was I didn’t think it was a fine art form. It was more traditional for me. But I wanted to explore new ways to use the biting technique. I started making baskets, and then rings out of the birchbark bitings set in metal. Then I made stamps that matched my eye teeth.  I’m most known for birchbark baskets that incorporate gold, silver and different metals. You can only harvest birchbark one time a year, and to me that makes it just as precious as metal.

I started to push the boundaries of what the material was used for traditionally. Traditionally, Ojibwe women worked with birchbark to make vessels, but after moving to the Southwest, I began to combine Coulter’s techniques and southwestern jewelry techniques to make my own baskets. I’m continuing to evolve. I want to do more. I want to work holograms into the baskets, so when you open the lid a hologram pops up, like the Princess Leia hologram from Star Wars! Except in this case the hologram would pop up and talk about time and culture and place, using our traditional stories about memories and place.

How did you make your Alumni Award-winning piece?
I used birchbark, coral, sterling silver, fine silver, and gold to make my piece, Sacred Seeds and Roots. All my canisters have a story to tell. This was my spin on a seed pot. And yes, I think I created a beautiful seed pot, but the seeds are what are most sacred.

How is IAIA unique?
I was really involved in the school and I got to see so many sides of it. I was the IAIA Ambassador to the Council of Tribal Colleges and president of the Powwow Club. There was just an opportunity to be around so many tribal cultures. IAIA was like the Harvard of Indian art schools for me. Even though we were from different nations we had that connection of art. At IAIA you’re able to experiment and be part of a dialogue about your pieces. It’s a place where students are willing to push the envelope and try new ideas. The faculty encourages that. I wanted to be like the great artists that had come before to IAIA, to follow in their success. It was a great place.

What’s the University of Wisconsin like?
It’s more of a research school. It’s very different from IAIA. Native communities have something really unique that nobody else has—our community and family. Sharing our culture, singing our songs, sharing our art, all of that comes together in a Native community like IAIA. We forget that when we go into the world. The western world says something else. It’s good to remember that and be ready for it.

What are some of your favorite memories of IAIA?
I loved when we’d get together out at the fire pit on campus—we would have a drum out there and sing songs and roast marshmallows. And of course I liked participating in the powwow we have every year. It’s nice to see that what was a little baby powwow when I was a student grow into something much bigger. The AIHEC (American Indian Higher Education Consortium) conferences were super fun. And so were all the classes at IAIA. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and go to class! The studios were open 24 hours a day and we’d be in there all day and all night.

What advice would you give aspiring artists?
There’s a quote I love from the Metis artist Louis Riel that goes, “My people have slept a hundred years and when they awake, it is the artist who will give them their spirits back.” It’s so true. I have days when I ask myself, ‘Am I doing anything? Am I making difference in world?’ Riel’s quote reminds you that you are. If I can inspire the same in someone else it would be amazing.