SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2001


Weaving Art and Politics

by Erica Thompson

It is a thursday afternoon and Vicky Moody is framing in windows. She is building a new studio at her home in Skidegate and this 'do it yourself' determination seems to characterize the way she pursues her visions. "If someone can do it, it can't be impossible."

Five years ago, at the All Native Tournament in Prince Rupert, Moody came upon a man selling his cedar bark weavings. She was captivated.

"I wondered how I would ever be able to afford that and I decided that I would have to learn how to make it myself." Last December, at the Unity Feast at the Charlotte Community Hall, Moody danced her Transition Robe, the likes of which have not been seen in two hundred years.

Moody has a penchant for big visions and three years ago this is exactly what happened to her.

Primarily a self-taught weaver, she has spent time with teachers and sisters, April Churchill-Davis and Evelyn Vanderhoop, cultivating her skills and it was during a workshop with Vanderhoop Moody sat at a loom for the first time. The blending of mountain goat's wool and cedar bark was revolutionary. Her ideas took flight and her work followed.

"The first time I tried ravens tail weaving using wool with Evelyn, it somehow expanded into my work with bark and I began combining the two mediums together. It grew into huge visions. There is a type of wool, which is a blend of mountain goat's wool and yellow cedar. The yellow cedar is spun into the wool and it is a huge task. I imagined softening bark into a material and everything changed. I couldn't sleep. I have been obsessed for five years and it hasn't slowed down. To me there is no limit to what you can do."

Moody began experimenting on the loom weaving pouches, creating geometric designs with wool and cedar in the ravens tail tradition. She continued to expand her work by designing and weaving clothing. Her ability to marry traditional weaving techniques with modern forms was illustrated early on in the fur trimmed cedar corset, she created for her grandfather Nathan Young's potlatch. In making the corset, she followed the technique used by carvers wherein a replicate or miniature is made before the actual form is created.

Without knowing it, Moody's first clothing project on the loom would lead to one of the biggest challenges of her weaving experiences. Her first clothing project was a dance apron, later worn by Jim Hart when he danced during his pole raising last year; a great honour for Moody. She was in the process of weaving leggings and a hat to be worn with the apron when she came across old photographs of chiefs dressed in cedar and wool woven robes. The photographs triggered the vision for a grand cedar and wool robe. It was three years in the making.

The cedar corset by Vicky Moody shown here with daughter Ksan.

Moody named her awe-inspiring blanket the Transition Robe reflecting her personal evolution upon discovering blended cedar bark and mountain goats wool. It also speaks to the impact she suspects occurred when earlier weavers first began trading and weaving with mountain goat's wool and local cedar for the first time. 'Transition,' she says, reflects the inspiration of discovering new forms of expression, in this case, the marriage of wool and cedar.

"When I began working on it, I began thinking about how hard it was for me to get a hold of the wool," and what it must have been like when they, in the old days, first discovered it, she says. "They must have been so excited. They must have done something like me. They were already doing bark when they discovered the wool and the ravens tail would have come together with the bark," says Moody. "If they reacted the way I did they would have traded high prices for it," she says of the delicate wool which is dry to work compared to wet bark.

The Transition Robe has stature by virtue of its size, let alone beauty. The robe hangs together 127 warps, or vertical sheets of cedar, hanging the full robe together. Moody says she didn't record the number of hours spent working with the robe but each row took over an hour to weave.

"I had a design in my head but it ended up being more elaborate than I had first envisioned. It is a spider's web design and on the bottom I tried ravens tail. What I put on my blanket, the cross-hatching, is ravens tail, zigzag or lightening design. I used a lot of black and white bold with five rows of the cedar/mountain goat homespun," she says.

The robe is woven from red cedar bark, sea otter pelt, black and white merino sheep's wool, and the highly specialized wool blended from cedar bark/mountain goat's wool. The fantastic blanket is woven from materials Moody gathered, or had on hand, with the exception of the specialized cedar/wool blend and the merino wool.

"Any project I have done I make do with what I have or it comes from the land," she says. "For the robe I used some black and white merino wool I had purchased to make pouches with." She collects pieces, such as deer hooves, teeth, and feathers, for the finishing touches. Hooves become rattles, to finish dance aprons. A sea otter coat, given to Moody by friend Lea Olsen provided rare finishing touches to the Transition Robe, as did pieces of a fur coat from her mother adorned the edges of large cedar mats and Moody's stunning corset.

"There probably hasn't been a blanket done like this for two hundred years," Moody says quietly adding that there are only five others known in the world today; those hanging in museums in cities far from the north coast.

It contains "all of the finest of things," says Moody, who is greatly inspired by the valuable blended wool created by only a few women in BC.

The Transition Robe came about during a time of incredible departure for Moody. For as she began to work the blanket's bark, she was preparing for another job - one she knew would require courage and strength. She would be adzing for eight hours a day while assisting Giitsxaa in carving the T'aanuu Pole; an honor, she says, to be working with someone who has for so long supported young artists in the community.

The T'aanuu pole is one of the six totems slated to be raised this June in celebration of the new Qay'llnagaay Heritage Centre, including the Ts'aahl (Chaatl) pole carved by Moody's husband, Garner.

"I knew pounding bark would get me in shape for adzing. I high graded the best pieces of bark [for the guts of the blanket] and pounded them with a mallet." To prevent the fragile bark from tearing while being pound-ed, she placed it upon a chimney brick with a grooved surface, which acts as a cushion or air pocket.

Vicky Moody taking the bark off the log that will become the T'aanuu pole.

With the carvers working eight hours a day, since the beginning of last summer, the pole is now awaiting a warmer season and painting. "It almost seems as if it was a dream. I can't really believe that we did that,' she says, "it seems so massive. Working on the T'aanuu Pole was a great honour."
Moody attributes the evolutions in her work to personal and family experience; particularly the inspiration and lessons she received from her grandparents, the late Nathan and Anne Young.

"My history has had a huge impact on my work and I was so proud to present my grandfather with my work If my grandfather were alive I would have put it [the robe] on him. I would have given it to him. It represents him, what he was, and what I have become."

She is very clear on what weaving, and particularly cedar bark, has brought to her life. " I am really thrilled at what I get to do and I am very respectful of the fact that I work with bark. It is a healing tool for meit seems bark has given me everything about how to treat people, to refrain from talking when you shouldn't. The healing part is the main thing, she says. "People travel all the way around the world looking for ways to get healing. My work enables me to feel good about myself, to produce and to stay healthy."

"When I go into the bush I am very respectful. I say a prayer. Early on it became apparent to me we only take what we need. I am very thankful the tree gives us something and continues to survive I am thankful to the creator and the ancestors for such a gift."

Such beliefs were reinforced three years ago when Moody was asked by her cousin Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson to join a group for a fly over the islands. What she witnessed sparked against the respect she has for her home.

"By the time we got off the plane I felt like getting sick. I was crying," remembers Moody. The flight revealed what is only visible from the sky, the absolute scale of industrial logging on Haida Gwaii; how entire vistas were clear cut checker-boards and how entire mountain sides were cut invisible from the water remain strong images with Moody.

"I have always said I wasn't a political person but this is where my work is taking me I would like to take my work and bring attention to and educate the world about what cedar is to our people and our islands."

As it happened, Moody found just such an opportunity. While marching in the Unity Rally, with hundreds of islanders to cast public votes of non-confidence in the Ministry of Forests, she decided it was the perfect moment to share her political voice. She would dance her Transition Robe that night at the feast.

"When you do your first piece you have a ceremony and I decided this was it. I want something special for all of my pieces that are wearable. I wanted it to be danced and shown in some way," she says, and to date the Transition Robe had not been seen. Battling stage fright, Moody took inspiration from her three children and danced the robe for the large gathering, including many hereditary chiefs.

"What we did with the Unity Feast was hard for me to do but very important for me to do. I take from the bush and I see what is out there. The Unity Feast was something that should have been done a long time ago it was a start People [are] all interested in the same goals," she says, and "I wanted to show just what can be done with our cedar."

photos, top - Simon Davies :: middle - Vicki Moody :: bottom - Giitsxaa

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2001