Gail Bannon — The Beauty of Wiigwaas

Story by Tiffany Jarva, Photos by Lana Pribic

“Since I was a wee one I’ve been drawing and painting,“ says artist Gail Bannon. “My mother would draw with me and my father would whittle.” Bannon is becoming more and more well-known for her creative work with wiigwaas (birch bark). “A lot of the appeal is how you can just go out and get it,” she explains when asked why this medium. “It’s so versatile.” Her baskets come in a multitude of sizes, some with wood burning etches, some with cedar, dogwood, red willow, basswood, or leather trim. She’s created clipboards, picture frames, mail carriers, a baby basket and “bitings” for her granddaughter, and even her business cards are made from leftover scraps of birch bark. The process can be challenging, says Bannon. “You have to steam it, bend it and form it; sometimes it just doesn’t form the way you want it to.”

“Let me tell you something about Gail that she’s not saying,” shares co-worker Helen Pelletier. “She is super talented and creative. It’s not easy to do what she does with birch bark.” Bannon creates her own patterns and does custom work, including weddings. She also teaches basket weaving, mostly to the youth of Fort William First Nation.

“I think I was a birch tree in my past life,” Bannon says. “It’s so useful. It’s so beautiful.” Bannon assures that the way she harvests the outer bark (in the spring when the sap is flowing so she doesn’t damage the cambium—inner bark) does not kill or hurt the tree in any way. “I put out my tobacco and thank the tree before my hatchet goes into it.”

Bannon says her dad was her most inspiring teacher. “He would say ‘Just do it.’ Even after his death, he’s still my greatest teacher.” As the mountain keeper and cultural coordinator at Fort William First Nation, Bannon is clearly connected to the land. She has studied forestry and, along with educator and canoe builder Darren Lentz, started a summer canoe building program for youth three years ago that can be seen in Goh Iromoto’s beautiful film The Canoe.

“Working on the mountain and with our youth is the best job I’ve ever had,” Bannon says.  

Check out Gail Bannon’s work on Instagram: @wiigwaas14.