BAR HARBOR, Maine — If you show up at Bar Harbor on the weekend of May 17-19, it’s unlikely that you’ll see a lot of folks with clam rakes, even though the town’s Passamaquoddy name, Moneskatik, translates as “clam-digging place.” But you will see a lot of Native American artisans gathered at tables under tents on the village green to sell their art at the 2019 Abbe Museum Indian Market. The Abbe event has quickly emerged as a premium showcase.
We were familiar with a few of the large Southwest shows — Santa Fe’s Indian Market in August draws 175,000 people — but didn’t know what to expect when we visited the Abbe’s inaugural market last year. When we strolled through town early Saturday morning, artisans were carting their wares to the village green and arranging their tables. By mid-morning, the green was full of people admiring the work and chatting with the artists who never seemed to tire of explaining — over and over — just how something was made. Curious browsers, after all, might become buyers. We were enchanted by the casual, friendly atmosphere as well as the supreme artistry. Apparently, we were not alone. More than 5,000 people visited the market over that first weekend.
Word spread quickly among the artists, according to organizer Stefanie Joy Muscat. “We’re very excited,” she told us by phone when we called to check on plans for this year’s market. “We’ll have 40 percent more artists and performers this year. We have run out of space on the green and a few artists will be showing inside the museum.”
The Abbe expects about 75 Native artists and performers representing more than 40 tribes. Maine’s four federally recognized tribes — Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Micmac (or Mi’kmaq) — are celebrated for their basketry. The newest works by some of the best-known basketmakers are snapped up immediately by top level collectors and museum curators. Even artists who quickly sell their work can’t resist the urge to keep busy at their booths.
“I’m glad I’m in the inaugural show,” Gal Frey told us as she wove long ash splints and sweetgrass into a basket about the size of her open hand. Frey is a linchpin in the Passamaquoddy basketry tradition. “I apprenticed under Sylvia Gabriel,” she explained, referring to a past master of the curled splint technique known as porcupine point. In turn, Gal Frey taught her sons Jeremy and Gabriel — both winners of United States Artists fellowships.
Jeremy shared a table near his mother with his Penobscot wife, Ganessa Frey. Turning one of his porcupine point baskets to show all the angles, he explained that “the inside must be as beautiful as the outside — every angle.” His brother Gabriel displayed his work in a larger space where photos showed how ash is harvested and processed. Throughout the market, he kept stripping splints from ash logs to weave exquisite traditional work baskets, including Allagash packs.
The Freys were hardly the only basketmaking family at the market. Molly Neptune Parker is one of the most revered elders, the matriarch of four generations of Passamaquoddy basket artists and a National Heritage Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts. “I learned from my mom, who learned from her mom,” she explained, noting that 95 yards of sweetgrass had gone into a small sewing basket.
Her prize pupil is her grandchild, Geo Neptune, who joked that “I wanted to learn before she was ready to teach me — at age 4. When I was at summer camp, I talked my way into a basketry class by saying that Molly is my grandmother.” Neptune’s baskets incorporate subtle modulations of color and woven birds to bring a contemporary update to the family tradition.
Parker and Neptune travel together to other shows around the country. “Now we are happy to have other artists coming here,” Parker said.
The Maine landscape might have looked familiar to representatives of other northeastern tribes, including Pequot and Narragansett jewelry makers and Mohawk bead-workers and quilters. But it was a radical change for Pueblo and Navajo artists coming from the arid Southwest.
“The whole state is just beautiful, so different from my state,” said Roy Tenorio, a jeweler from New Mexico’s San Felipe Pueblo. Known for his elegant settings of unusual stones, he showed us a handful of bloodstones that he had found at a roadside rock shop on the drive from Camden to Bar Harbor. “These are future jewelry,” he said enthusiastically. And he added, with an air of marvel, “Last night I had a lobster roll at Bass Harbor.”
Or, as Tol-Pi-Yiné Simbola said, “Maine blew the desert dust off me.” The Picuris Pueblo jeweler is known for his scale-like “Dragon Skinn” silver rings and cuffs.
Valentina Aragon was minding the booth of her husband, fashion designer Loren Aragon from Acoma Pueblo — a community near Albuquerque celebrated for the geometric designs of its pottery. “He comes from a family of potters, but he wanted to do something different,” she explained, spreading out a dress with a design inspired by traditional pots. “His family loved it. It was a pushing forward of the culture.”
Singers, musicians, storytellers, and dancers performed throughout the market, but Saturday’s biggest hit was a Native American fashion show on the village green. As Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, the museum’s president and CEO, observed, “Native fashion is experiencing a renaissance.” She placed contemporary Native American fashion in the context of cultural authenticity. “Other designers have appropriated designs from Native culture. Now Native designers are reclaiming those motifs, drawing identity from their cultures but with a modern lens.”
She could have said the same of Indian Market artists working in every medium.
IF YOU GO . . .
Abbe Museum Indian Market takes place May 17-19 on the Bar Harbor village green. Admission to the market is free. The fashion show will be held May 18 at 6 p.m. at the Criterion Theatre (35 Cottage St.). Admission $10, VIP admission with reserved seating and reception $25. For full market schedule and list of participating artists, visit abbemuseum.org/indianmarket.