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From Roadkill to the Runway

Artist Holly Young on the purse that became an Art in Bloom sensation

By Diane Richard

Long before anyone knew what COVID-19 was, or that Mia would close this spring because of it, Holly Young was in Bismarck, North Dakota, thinking about the 2019 Sante Fe Indian Market. It was several months before the nation’s premier showcase for Native artists, and Young was looking for a challenge. So she dug into her stash of roadkill porcupine quills.

She transformed the quills, along with leather and feathers, into a lavish purse imagined for the catwalk. At the market, her extraordinary artwork caught the eye of Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Mia’s associate curator of Native American art. Snared, more like it. Like an eagle surveys a fox eyeing a hare, Young noted Ahlberg Yohe circling back multiple times to examine the purse.

When Ahlberg Yohe approached her to praise it, Young felt euphoric. Before long, a purchase was brewing. Three members of the Friends of the Institute — Maria Eggemeyer, Maria Wagner Reamer, and Therese M. Blaine — generously opened their own pocketbooks to secure the purse for the museum’s collection. This year, it was chosen as the featured work for Art in Bloom, an annual April fundraiser at Mia in which more than 160 volunteers and commercial florists display floral art inspired by the museum’s collection.

Raised in Fort Yates, North Dakota., and now living in Bismarck, Young wasn’t sure the artist life was for her. In times of doubt, the rich art legacy of her Dakota ancestors sustains her. Now, she hopes to be a bridge for future artists — her 12-year-old daughter, Inyan, for instance. “She has finally got into art herself,” she says. “She is such a huge part of my art journey. I feel like it’ll bring us closer.”

How does the natural world inspire you?

I grew up with my grandma out in the country. We lived in a really small house, seven miles out of town on a few acres of land. I don’t think nature was important to me at that time. When I look at my own art now, though, I can see how it was poking its head out. It’s something that’s in me, in my memory. The plants, the flowers, the relationship with the land, the healing properties that come from those things are very inspirational to my art.

I also look at the natural world as the life cycle and the relationship the animals and plants have to one another to survive. I feel that’s how my art life is. I lean on my community, the people, and the traditions to inspire me. I don’t think I flourish without it. Personally, how the natural world has the power to regenerate itself, that’s how I feel about myself as an artist. We have our highs and lows. Sometimes your art life is going really good; sometimes it’s difficult. Pulling from my community, someone will say an encouraging word and I’m able to regenerate myself.

What inspired you to make Floral Legacy?

This was only my second year at the Indian Market. I needed to come up with a big project to challenge myself. Everyone knows me as a bead worker. I knew I wanted to do quillwork; I had just taught myself quillwork. I also do ledger art. I was finishing a ledger piece, and I drew a lady who was holding a bag. I remember thinking, “This is really cute. That’s what I should make.” At the time I thought it wouldn’t be so hard. I really humbled myself thinking how fast it would go. It did not turn out to be like that. It took forever.

How did you decide to do quillwork?

I had a residency at the Minnesota Historical Society. At the time, I wasn’t even sure I was going to keep going with art. So I was studying florals in the collection, and the majority were in quillwork. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, how do you even. . .?” It blew my mind. I was amazed by the craftsmanship of my ancestors. I thought, “They can do it. It’s inside me.”

Do you call Floral Legacy a purse, a bag or an art object?

I call it a double-sided woman’s bag. It is made to be functional. It can be carried.

Holly Young at work.

Did you intend it as fashion or as art?

The whole project was a purse with some statement earrings. I envisioned a woman walking on a catwalk. Because I had never made quillwork to that extent before, I asked my cousin to help. She said, “Fashion or function?” I said, “Both!” I was running out of patience. She was trying to make me realize I was trying to cut corners. As extreme and picky as I am, I made it to be functional. I’m happy how it turned out. I impressed myself.

What was your approach to making it?

I thought, “Do I have what I need for it?” I did. That’s another artist secret: we hoard supplies. I had been building up my quills. I don’t buy them; I get them from roadkill. I pick them up from dead porcupines. I’d rather do it that way and not have the animal go to waste. So I had the quills, the leather. Then I had to design it. I wasn’t even thinking when I drew out the pattern and cut it out on leather. It’s very expensive.

What are some quillwork basics?

You forage the quills, clean them, soak them, rinse them, dry them. Then you start to separate them. Only the long, thin ones — about 2 1/2 inches — can be maneuvered into the curvature of a flower. Then you dye them. I had to dye some in the middle of the project; it’s hard to match. Then you start your project. It’s long and tedious. It’s sewing for hours. It lets you know how strong and pliable those quills are. When you go to sew them on the bag, you throw them in water again so they’re pliable. You tuck them under each other so it looks like one continuous quill. It’s so weird how calming it can be. It’s a mental and emotional workout.

What did you think when Jill and The Friends chose Floral Legacy as the featured work for Art in Bloom?

Addressing Jill: When Jill came to my booth, I was watching you, Jill. I felt like I saw you get really excited about it. I was like, “I wonder what she thinks?” You turned around and told me how beautiful it as. Then you left and came back. I was like, “I hope it goes to her.” To get a double-take from you, I was super excited and honored for you to consider it for your collection.

Jill: [Nods vigorously.]

How does it feel to think of it in a museum?

It’s overwhelming and it’s humbling. To think how large Mia is — so beautiful and huge. To think of all the art in there. To think my purse is with all the beautiful objects. It’s a milestone for me.

It’s really reassuring, too. As an artist, you’re very critical of yourself. After you dedicate so much time to a project, you’re kind of over it. When I finished that purse, my cousin came over. She made a big deal about it. I got uncomfortable the longer she looked at it. I was like, “I’m going to fix something.” One time I had a nightmare. I saw all my art, not just the little things but the big ones, laid on this table, and people were looking at it. I went up and said, “Oh, I can tell you what I did wrong.” It’s crazy.

Have you ever been to Art in Bloom?

Never. I didn’t know it was a thing. I’m hardly in the Cities. If I am, it has to do with my community work: teaching or researching. It sounds like something I would love. Obviously I love flowers and plants and I’m drawn to that.

What role do flowers play in your life?

They are like these imprints of my life. Memories of my grandmother, walking the land: her gardens, how she tended them. She taught me about the plants. The flowers are the teachers, to me, in my art journey. Even more than my art journey, just as a mom, a relative, a community member. Plants are not only pretty. They’ve come to mean so much more to me. It’s a feeling, a journey, and it’s healing. It’s both symbolic and scientifically true.

How do you balance tradition and contemporary culture?

We live in a different world today than my ancestors did. Our world is loud and boisterous and bright and in your face. When I study my ancestors’ creations, they’re not like that. They’re calming to me. I feel like the beadwork designs are ornate but simple. They used a limited amount of supplies and colors, and what they made came out beautiful.

Symbolically, I’m looking for a simple, calmer way of life. Creating floral projects is calming to my mind. I purposely choose the colors they used because I feel closer and more connected to them. It helps me as an artist to appreciate our humble beginnings. I have so much at my fingertips right now; you can just go online. They had a different life. They had to shoot a deer and tan a hide. I’m really privileged for what I have available. But I like to get as close as I can to the feeling of my ancestors’ work.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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