It was at a living room table in his childhood home that Mel Losh (Ojibwe) first learned the tedious and painstaking methods of traditional Ojibwe beadwork and quillwork.
At the age of 16, Losh began what was to become a lifelong passion that has turned in to a journey of artistic discovery, hard work and accolades, including a 2015 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award from First Peoples Fund. Losh, now 68, lives in Bena, Minnesota, located on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
When Losh first started out, he studied with Ojibwe artist Josephine Ryan, who told Losh's parents that he had a special way of working with the beads. Losh spent the first 10 years making medallions, outfits and belt buckles, before taking a five-year break. But it was during a Michigan powwow that he met accomplished quillworker Catherine Baldwin. She taught him new skills, including how to insert quills into birch bark using an awl and tweezers. His passion was renewed and he started working at it again.
His hard work has paid off. The Minnesota Historical Society's Mille Lacs Museum has since purchased his bandolier bags, and the Plains Art Museum and Smithsonian own his quill boxes. He recently won "Best of Show" at the Bemidji State University annual Art Expo.
Losh said when he was a teen, he didn't realize the importance of carrying on the traditional art form. He thought he was simply doing something he loved.
"It wasn't until I was in my 20's that I realized the importance of this work to our people," said Losh.
The process to do the quillwork is Losh's greatest passion. It begins with collecting porcupine quills—often from "road kill"—and cleaning, drying and sorting them. He draws a pattern onto the birch bark, sorts the quills and insets the quill into one of two holes. The quill is then bent and the free end is inserted into the other end. It is repeated until the design is complete. While working, there are times when Losh has hundreds of quills in his mouth, preparing to insert them in to the bark.
Passing on the traditional work can be intense, he said, because of the detail that is required. And, pushing quills through birch bark can be painful, but it's one of the aspects Losh loves.
"The feeling is just amazing," he said.
It's something he enjoys sharing. When women in the community heard that Losh could do the traditional work, they asked to be taught. "They kept 'bothering' me to do a workshop," he said.
He applied for a grant and was able to host several quill work workshops, but struggled at first to keep people coming.
"People back out when they see how much is involved," he said. "One women almost cried when she learned how difficult this work can be."
But that attitude is changing now, Losh said. He led seven groups last summer with 18 people, ages ranging from five to 72.
Losh is dedicated to teaching others with patience, said fellow artists Douglas Limón (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin), and has been generous with his beadwork and quillwork talents.
"He creates burial moccasins for grieving families, not to benefit him monetarily, but to comfort the families and to help the loved ones on their journey," he wrote in his nomination letter. "He does this generously and many times, he will work a straight 40 hours without any sleep to get the burial moccasins made for the funeral. This is very comforting to families."
The support from First Peoples Fund has inspired Losh to live out a handful of his lifelong dreams, including a trip to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, to view Native artwork.
"And there's something I've always wanted to do," he said. "It's a full-beaded bandolier bag and a woman's complete traditional dance outfit."
Losh said financial challenges made it difficult to do large projects.
"My income isn't very big," he said. "I've worked 37 years and I never planned for retirement. Quill boxes and beadwork help. This honor from First Peoples Fund is going to free me up to do those things I want to do."
He's taken the first step toward those dreams, he said, by buying the canvas for the cap of the traditional dress.
"I can hardly wait to get started," he said.