Mel Losh, Ojibwe quill and bead artist, wants to keep a dying tradition alive

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Mel Losh
Leech Lake reservation artist Mel Losh, 66, makes bandolier bags and birch bark boxes; the bags have designs made with beads and his box illustrations are made from porcupine quills.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

When you're an artist working in porcupine quills, pain comes with the palette.

The quills — needle-like animal hair — are sharp and barbed. "When they go in," says Mel Losh, "the stinging is so bad when you pull them out."

Happily, most of Losh's quills work their way into his art, not his fingers or the roof of his mouth. His intricate work — quill boxes and ornate bead work creations — has found its way into museums and private collections around the world.

He is one of the few remaining masters of this traditional Ojibwe craft. But he worries no one is following in his footsteps to learn the fast disappearing skills. In a life that's taken him from reservation kid to Chicago business school student to keeper of a dying art, Losh is searching now for others he can teach.

It will not be easy. The scenes and painstaking attention to detail on Losh's work lift his pieces into something that can't be easily reproduced. It took him decades to master. That was evident as he showed his work on a recent visit to his small, neat house in Bena on the Leech Lake reservation.

Losh says the birch bark he works with is like cork. He makes holes in the bark for each end of the quill. He arranges quills by length and color in recycled margarine or deli containers.

"You use a tweezers to pull them through after you make your holes with an awl," he said. "The feeling of that quill going into the birchbark is like a rubber band, and I pull it as tight as I can."

He uses quills, some of them dyed, to make flowers, animals or insects, patterns inspired by creatures in the forest and lakes that surround his northern Minnesota home.

Birchbark box
Round birchbark box has a friction-fit lid that depicts a stylized wolf howling at the moon using dyed porcupine quillwork. The wolf is rendered in profile with dark grayish brown quills; his head is contrasted against a yellowish white moon on a ground of light yellowish brown birchbark. A border of yellow quillwork triangles encircles the wolf and moon; a similar pattern in a larger scale is repeated at the edge of the lid. The walls of the lid are finished with medium olive brown sweetgrass couched with black thread below a single zigzag line of deep red quills. The lower half of the box bottom is covered with natural colored quills arranged vertically; each is yellowish white with a brown tip. Both parts of the box are constructed of double thicknesses of birchbark. [All National Bureau of Standards colors]. The box was made in Bena, Minn.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The quills come mostly from neighbors who bring him roadkill. Once in awhile he'll get a porcupine because of its fatal attraction to houses. "It has a tendency to like siding of most homes," he said. "They'll eat it and so they can't get rid of them so they shoot 'em."

Losh was a young teenager he took a beadwork course from Josephine Ryan, a reservation elder and artist. "When it was over with she went and met my mom and dad and said, 'You better do something to help him get his bead supplies because he's got something there.'"

Later, he learned to make birchbark boxes adorned with porcupine quills from Katherine Baldwin, an Ojibwe woman at a powwow in Michigan.

Just after high school, Losh left his Leech Lake reservation home of seven brothers and sisters, a father who worked on the railroad and a mother who was a homemaker to explore life in the big city.

He studied business in Chicago and lived there for about a year.

"I just couldn't stand that life in that big city," he said. "So I asked my dad if I could come home, and he said, 'C'mon, and hopefully you'll be able to find a job when you get here.'"

He landed an office job with the reservation — art alone wasn't enough to make a living — and pursued his bead and quill work in his spare time.

Bandolier bag
Ojibwa bandolier bag of black cotton velvet made by Mel Losh. It's decorated in floral motifs employing glass seed beads in the spot stitch applique technique on the strap and the area above the pocket. The pocket panel features floral motifs worked in quill on birchbark that is attached to the velvet. The fur backing of the pocket incorporates a horizontal opening. Individually made bead tassels edge the sides and bottom of the pocket section.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

At his home, he lifts protective plastic from his newest beadwork, a bandolier bag. Art historians say American Indians used the bags solely for decorative purposes and copied the design from bags worn by soldiers for carrying cartridges.

The bag hangs from a neck strap made of black velvet. It's adorned with beads in patterns that create a Technicolor forest of plants and creatures.

These days he says a quill box might sell for $400; a bandolier bag costs thousands.

Losh says a couple of family members showed interest in learning the techniques but didn't follow through. More worrisome is that at the moment, he doesn't have any students learning how to work with quills, a traditional art he says is worth preserving.

Losh, who turns 67 on Thursday, has a pacemaker to keep a touchy heart in tune and says he's never felt better, to the point where his art is always on his mind. But he knows that the work might someday end with him.

"I know how to do almost a lost art," he said, "and it still could become a lost art, you know, if we don't hurry up here and train some people."