Angelique Merasty Levac has been an ambassador for the Woodland Cree nation through her expertise as a birch bark biting artist from Northern Manitoba. She is prolific at producing the art from birch bark. “I go home once a year and search for my birch bark in Manitoba. It takes me about three to four days to find the bark, free of knot, white birch, with few branches. I have to search for the straight tree and when I find it usually the first layer is weather damaged, and that’s no good, and sometimes the second layer is too. You use the third, fourth, and sometimes fifth layer if you’re lucky,” explains Angelique.
“I don’t cut the trees, don’t want damage the tree. I go and sample and cut it a bit and test it, since sometimes they look good but aren’t. What I do is, I try to get most of it from one tree, far as I can reach. Now I cut the layers up, and peel it a bit, cut into squares, and do it again by finding another tree, in Manitoba, mostly Pukatawagan area,” north of Lynn Lake, Manitoba.
“I bring the birch bark home and have to rest and get into a my own little world, when I am doing this birch bark biting. I store the pieces. I have to be thinking clearly, then I will bring out the birch bark, and it has to be peeled into strips. Sometimes peeling the bark causes a lot of ripping. At all times I am aiming for a large piece but this is not often possible, due to ripping the bark as I am peeling it.”
She explains, “I will fold the piece into a small square by folding it again, but instead of doing a cut-out, what I do is make a tooth impression, bite a design, for example, a hummingbird, and I picture his wings and his body, and I start to bite at his beak, and then his head and the wings and the body, and that’s how I picture it in my head.
“By biting, what I should say is you cannot bite too hard or you puncture a hole through the bark. You have to bite hard enough to produce a bruise with your teeth but if you bite too hard the pressure will destroy the bark. It’s a matter of pressure, also to create the image and the contrast in the image by bruising the bark. I use the teeth on each side, with the sharpest tooth, and however I feel comfortable, and it depends on the design, and that is how I bruise the birch bark which makes the designs come out.”
It is intricate work, “And when I finish I open it by unfolding, once, for I cannot refold the bark, it will not line up properly twice. All my designs have to be done exactly in one effort with each part, flowers, wings, eyes, other parts to a piece, complete in my head, until it’s finished. When it is finished I leave quarter or half inch on each side so it can be framed. It has to be framed with acid free matting, and the birch bark cannot be left long on paper that is not acid-free.”
This art is becoming rare to see, “Everybody’s teeth marks are different, and I didn’t learn this overnight. I started in 1980, and I have had a lot of practice, and I owe my teacher, Angelique Merasty. She said, ‘Whatever I taught you here you cannot learn overnight. You have to go home and practice,' and I went home and did that.’”
Regarding the medium in which she works, “If you store it properly birch bark has an endless shelf life, but it’s getting harder to find. I think the good bark is going fast, and when I am travelling, I watch the forest and I wonder if the ozone or the environment is affecting the tops of the trees, the branches at the crown at the top of the trees are dying, and breaking off. When I am travelling I am looking at the birch bark and what I see is all the trees are damaged on the top, in all provinces. I am not looking for prospective trees, just looking at birch bark. Nevertheless I continue to work at my art and currently I have orders from Toronto, among other places, and I still produce lots of the the art every year.”
Angelique’s book, God Opens Doors (Kisemanitow Peyohtena Iskwatem) came out from a Winnipeg based Canada-USA publisher summer of 2012.