Kelly Church

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Kelly Church
Kelly Church basket
Church in 2023
Kelly Jean Church

1967 (age 56–57)
Michigan, U.S.
NationalityMatch-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians of Michigan, American
EducationFamily, self-taught
AFA Institute of American Indian Arts
BFA University of Michigan
Known forBasket making, painting, birchbark biting
MovementWoodlands style
AwardsNEA National Heritage Fellowship (2018), Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Award, Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Fellowship

Kelly Jean Church (Match-e-benash-she-wish Potawatomi/Odawa/Ojibwe) is a black ash basket maker, Woodlands style painter, birchbark biter, and educator.


Kelly Church, a fifth-generation basket maker, was born in 1967. She grew up in southwestern Michigan. Her mother is of English and Irish heritage, and her father is of Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe heritage. Church studied the Odawa language from her paternal grandmother and learned black ash basketry from her father, Bill Church, and cousin, John Pigeon. She, in turn, has taught her daughter, Cherish Parrish (Gun Lake Band Potawatomi).[1]

Church has completed an AFA degree at the Institute of American Indian Studies and a BFA degree at the University of Michigan.[2]



Along with her family, Church harvests her own trees in swampy areas of rural Michigan. Preparing the materials takes far longer than the weaving. She removes the bark from the felled log and then splits apart the growth rings into finer and finer splints for basketry. The splints are dyed and soaked before weaving.[3]

Church's baskets range from the utilitarian fishing creels, market baskets, and bark baskets to rectangular wedding baskets and whimsical strawberry baskets.[4] She also creates experimental baskets with her own designs that incorporate materials such as copper, photographs, and plastic window blinds – the latter a warning of what the future might look like without black ash trees. Her work reflects on the potential extinction of the black ash due to the infestation of the emerald ash borer, which is estimated to kill 99 percent of the ash trees in the United States.[5]

Birchbark biting[edit]

Church is an active birchbark biter. This precontact Great Lakes art form involves biting designs with one's eyeteeth into a folded sheet of young paper birch bark. The bit areas turn a dark brown that contrasts with the pale surface of the bark. Her designs are both abstract and representational, featuring turtles, dragonflies, and other subjects.[4] The resulting pieces incorporate storytelling, as well as serving as templates for quillwork and beadwork designs.[2]


Inspired by the Woodlands style of painting, also known as Legend or Medicine painting, created by Norval Morrisseau (Bingwi Neyaashi Ojibwe, 1932–2007).[2] Church paints figures from her tribes' oral histories, such as Nanabozho, or the wildlife native to Michigan, such as sandhill cranes. She typically works in acrylic on canvas and uses contrasting colors for maximum optical brilliance.

Honors and projects[edit]

Church's black ash baby basket with sweetgrass turtle charm

Church has won many awards for her basketry, including the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Award[1] and the 2008 Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Fellowship. In 2006 and 2008, she organized a symposium about tactics to save the black ash tree from the emerald ash borer,[1] with funding and support from the National Museum of the American Indian. More recently, Church also received the National Museum of the American Indian Artist Leadership Program Award (2010), as well as the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Award (2011).

Church was awarded the best of basketry classification by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts at the Santa Fe Indian Market in 2016. The Smithsonian Institution awarded her a Native Scholars Fellowship in 2016. In addition, she has served as Eiteljorg Artist in Residence, and is a recipient of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation's National Artist Fellowship.[6]

The National Endowment for the Arts named Church as one of its 2018 National Heritage Fellows. The citation noted her teaching and mentorship work, which "goes beyond the artistic practice to include discussions in biochemistry, forest management, invasive pest control, traditional language skills, and deeply personal memories of family history".[6]

Her work, Sustaining Traditions–Digital Memories, was acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of the Renwick Gallery's 50th Anniversary Campaign.[7][8]

Selected exhibitions[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Band of Chippewa and Ottawa), Hopkins, Michigan. Carriers of Culture: Living Native Basket Traditions. 31 Dec 2006 (retrieved 17 March 2009)
  2. ^ a b c "Church, Kelly Jean". Benezit Dictionary of Artists. 2014. doi:10.1093/benz/9780199773787.article.B2260379. ISBN 978-0-19-977378-7. Retrieved May 8, 2020.
  3. ^ "Art Market at National Museum of the American Indian". Smithsonian Magazine. 5 Dec 2008 (retrieved 17 March 2009)
  4. ^ a b Programs and Activities: Kelly Church. Archived 2009-03-03 at the Wayback Machine Great Lakes Folk Festival. 2008 (retrieved 17 March 2009)
  5. ^ a b Niemi, Paul (March 14, 2014). "Weaving and Protecting a History: A Conversation with Basket-Maker Kelly Church". National Museum of the American Indian. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  6. ^ a b "Kelly Church: Anishinabe (Gun Lake Band) Black Ash Basketmaker". National Endowment for the Arts. n.d. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  7. ^ Savig, Mary; Atkinson, Nora; Montiel, Anya (2022). This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World. Washington, DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum. pp. 228–238. ISBN 9781913875268.
  8. ^ "Kelly Church". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved November 30, 2022.
  9. ^ "Mitchell Museum of the American Indian: Chicago area museum devoted exclusively to North American native people". Retrieved May 8, 2020.
  10. ^ "Kelly Church and Nancy Bulkley: Gifts of Art Exhibition | Alumni News". July 8, 2015. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  11. ^ "Kelly Church's Sustaining Traditions–Digital Memories". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved May 9, 2020.
  12. ^ "Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists". Minneapolis Institute of Art. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  13. ^ "An Interwoven Legacy: The Black Ash Basketry of Kelly Church and Cherish Parrish". Grand Rapids Art Museum. Retrieved September 12, 2021.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]