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Artist practises ancient art form

Author: 
Gina Teel, Windspeaker Correspondent, Edmonton
Volume: 
11
Issue: 
21
Year: 
1994

Page 14

Dianna Wabie may practise an obscure Native art form, but she doesn't have any trouble finding materials.

That's because her husband is a commercial fisherman.

Wabie creates likenesses of wild flowers using Whitefish scales and porcupine quills. The school teacher and cattle farmer from Lac La Biche, Alta. bases her work on an ancient art form used by the Woodland tribes to decorate clothing.

But instead of decorating clothing, Wabie mounts and frames her work, thus creating a unique piece of art. Her work is so unique, in fact, that the Treaty 6 Chiefs from her reserve recently purchased two of them to take to the Queen of England next spring.

While the art in itself is striking, the delicacy of the work is perhaps its most intriguing aspect. The texture of the fish scale flowers resemble live chrysanthemums. The uniformity of the scales is perfect, and the rows of 'petals' are seamed invisibly together. The flowers, perched atop porcupine quill stems, are mounted on velvet and framed. Although Wabie dyes some of her scales, the natural beauty of the unaltered scales makes for a stunning display against a black velvet background.

Wabie only uses Whitefish for her art.

"Other fish scales are just large," she said. "Whitefish scales come in small, medium and large."

After her husband scales the fish, Wabie carefully washes and air dries them. The scales curl as they dry, some more than others.

"There is no control over curling," she said. Once the scales are dry, Wabie sorts them to size, then again to grade of curl. This is to ensure consistency in her art.

"The scales have to be carefully selected," she said. "you have to pick uniform scales - it's a lot of time-consuming work."

Once sorted, Wabie dyes the scales either blue, green or red. Although she has used natural dyes in the past, she now prefers clothing dyes.

"It works better," she said. From there, the scales can either be sewn or glued into place.

In keeping with traditional Whitefish scale work, Wabie concentrates on floral patterns.

"I was told long ago that the design inspirations came from things growing in the bush. That's why I do the Alberta wild rose."

In addition to her Whitefish scale art, the multi-talented Wabie carves jewelry out of deer and elk antler and bone, and makes fur mitts and mink fur brooches.

"I have been exposed to Native art forms all my life. I remember seeing things in my grandparent's house like birch bark things and beaded things and I always thought they were neat." Wabie, who has degrees in political science and Native studies, cuts and sands the bone jewelry by hand, carving such intricacies as a wild rose or a leaping stag.

Jewelry prices run from $12 to $80. Her Whitefish scale pictures start at $125 and up, depending on their intricacy.

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