Native Art that Embraces the Natural World

Elizabeth James-Perry uses materials she has foraged and grown to create fine art inspired by the environment

In Elizabeth James-Perry’s exhibit “Double Arrows,” on display through November 12 at the Tufts University Art Galleries at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, the title represents the two-way relationship between humans and the environment, a give and take that should be much more balanced than it is.

Throughout her work, artist James-Perry, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head-Aquinnah, emphasizes our interdependencies with the Earth. She incorporates fiber cords dyed from native plants she has grown, jewelry carved from shells she has gathered, and woven matting made of ash, reed, or cedar bark she collects.

At an artist’s talk on October 18, James-Perry described how she has learned to grow plants from wild seeds, so as not to disrupt populations of sometimes rare species. “It allows you to have a real direct personal relationship with the natural world,” she said. “You can see what’s thriving … and it’s very quickly something that becomes quite addictive to be out there all the time, seeing what’s coming out, what’s doing well this year.”

Foraging for her art supplies in the woods or at the seashore is more time consuming than stopping at Walmart, she joked. But the process is a physical experience that employs all her senses.

“There’s a wonderful quality to the different plants in terms of textures and colors and scents,” she said. “You might smell sassafras at one time of the year, another time … the goldenrod might be blooming. For me, it’s such an evocative scent of the end of the growing season in New England that I think I would be kind of lost without it.”

In a Q&A that accompanies the exhibit, James-Perry explains that producing fine artwork is her way of challenging widely held notions that Indigenous cultures are unsophisticated and don’t deserve to continue.

“For decades I have worked on Native self-reliance, reciprocal land use skills, and, throughout, reading the weather well,” she said. “One can only imagine all those skills are going to become all the more necessary on the eve of severe climate change.”

a gallery view of "Double Arrows"

Photo: Mel Taing Photography

Elizabeth James-Perry’s textured weavings and jewelry aim to highlight the natural beauty of the local ecosystem.
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