New exhibit celebrates Wabanaki culture and art

Gina Brooks painted like a rock star playing a guitar solo. The 52-year-old Native Canadian dragged her paintbrush across the canvas in slow, legato strokes of pink and black before they erupted into staccato bursts of blue, blasting some cold air over the group of birds on the canvas.

“It’s a process of listening,” said Brooks, standing in a paint-splattered yellow apron behind a display of her prints and paintings at Bar Harbor’s Abbe Museum. The museum is dedicated to telling the story of the Wabanaki people, the original inhabitants of New England and southeastern Canada. A new multimedia exhibit, “People of the First Light,” documents the past and present of the Wabanaki through the perspective of storytellers and artists like Brooks.

“It’s not always my voice that speaks,” said Brooks, who has never received formal artistic training, but whose illustrations of moose, birds, skunks and frogs from Wabanaki mythology are heavily featured in the exhibit, “it’s the one that comes with you when you’re born.”

Maliseet artist Gina Brooks’ Artist Gina Brooks’ favorite color to paint with is a reddish-brown hue, “Color of the Earth,” which gives warmth and life to her images.  PHOTO BY DAVID ROZA

Maliseet artist Gina Brooks’ Artist Gina Brooks’ favorite color to paint with is a reddish-brown hue, “Color of the Earth,” which gives warmth and life to her images.

Whoever’s voice that is, they’ve got the right idea. Brooks’ paintings, prints, sweet grass basketry and moose hair embroidery have been commissioned for thousands of dollars by collectors across Canada. She said she learned all there is to know about basket weaving by watching her father, a carpenter, do it.

“A lot of the men were carpenters and made baskets, and I always watched them” she said. “They didn’t have time to teach, you just did it.”

At the time, art was a way to make ends meet. Brooks is from St. Mary’s First Nation in Canada’s New Brunswick province, a pair of reservations about 70 miles east of the Maine border. The citizens of St. Mary’s are Maliseet, one of the four tribes that make up the Wabanaki, who — according to the Abbe Museum — have been selling baskets and other art to non-natives for some additional income since at least the 18th century.

Growing up, Brooks remembers her father pushing her on a bicycle into the nearby town of Fredericton, where she sold her family’s baskets for $20, total. Brooks would then hide the money in her socks on the ride home.

“I felt kind of embarrassed to be this brown little girl on this big bike with baskets tied to the handlebars,” she said. “But I became a pretty good salesperson.”

Now, after a career spent working in Maliseet politics and as a federal conservation officer in Canada, Brooks thinks of art as a way to bring her people’s culture and purpose back to life.

“Art has this opportunity to breathe life back into this land,” she said. “And into our responsibility to maintain the land so that we can continue to use it.”

“Loon,” pen-and-ink on paper, Gina Brooks

“Loon,” pen-and-ink on paper, Gina Brooks

As Brooks explained, the basket does not exist without the tree. The Wabanaki have long been environmental advocates in Maine and Canada, in part because conservation is central to the Wabanaki origin myth.

As illustrated by Brooks’ prints in “People of the First Light,” the myth begins with Koluskap the giant, who was tasked with creating a race of people to care for the Earth. Koluskap shot an arrow through a brown ash tree, which split in two to reveal twin spirits. After promising to serve the Dawnland and all its creatures, the twin spirits became the first man and woman. Many Wabanaki baskets today are made of the same kind of ash tree.

“I always keep that story inside of myself,” Brooks said. “We come here knowing that question; are we doing our part?”

The Abbe Museum

Where:  26 Mount Desert St., Bar Harbor

Hours: From May through October, the museum is open daily from 10 to 5 p.m.

How much: $8 per adult, $4 per child (11-17). Children 10 and under go free.

Contact: 288-3519, www.abbemseum.org

Former reporter, David Roza grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and covered news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.