Culture is at the core of everything Kelsey Borgford creates.
Her newest work, a children’s book called What’s in a Bead?, is set to be released by Second Story Press March 12. It is heavily influenced by watching and learning traditional Indigenous art forms, the author said.
“Without that influence, my work would have no spirit,” said Borgford, who is Nbisiing Nishnaabe, living in Nipissing First Nation, Ont.
“I especially have the Elders and knowledge keepers in my life to thank for the connection to the culture that I show in my work. I am always learning more from them and that grows my ability to show my spirit in a good way.”
What’s in a Bead? tells the story of a young girl named Tessa who wants her grandmother to teach her how to bead. Tessa’s mother, though, first teaches her daughter the protocol for asking an Elder to share their knowledge, including making a tobacco tie from red cloth to offer Kohkom for her lesson.
Pulled onto Kohkom’s lap, the Elder tells Tessa stories about why beads are symbols of Indigenous resilience and how beadwork helps tell stories of different Indigenous peoples.
The book is available in an English only edition, and in a Cree/English version.
What’s in a Bead? illustrator Tessa Pizzale also centres culture in her work, she says.
“My culture influences everything I do every day.”
From the community of Moose Factory, Ont., Pizzale said her mother “raised me in the Cree traditional way, going to ceremonies quite young, dancing at round dances and powwows.”
That foundation inspires her to create.
“Being Indigenous has allowed me to be my true self,” said Pizzale, “and doing art allows me to create how I feel about being Indigenous.”
Borgford has a strong notion of the purpose behind her writing.
“My goal is to give life to the stories I set out to tell. I want readers to learn from my works and feel the spirit within the words.”
She said she’s fortunate to have learned from many different knowledge keepers and artists, including “my mom who showed me how to sew, and spent many nights pulling threads out when I made mistakes,” Borgford said. “And Shawnesia Panachanj, who showed me how to work with birchbark and harvest porcupine quills.”
Borgford said she’s grateful for the commitment of many “to learning our cultural ways and passing that along to me.”
For Pizzale, childhood memories include watching her grandmother and talented aunties bead. “My Kookum taught me when I was old enough to understand why we bead,” she said.
The book, for ages six to eight year olds, shares the theme of connecting to family and identity through the transmission of traditional art.
Pizzale’s parents tell her she was creating before she was one year old.
“My parents said that I started drawing objects and people at the age of 11 months. I’ve continued to do different media throughout the years, such as drawing, beading, painting, digital illustration and belt making.”
Similarly, Borgford has been writing since childhood.
“The first time I remember writing a creative piece, I was 11 or 12 years old. I wrote a short story about hunting,” she said, and found a love for the writing process.
Borgford’s childhood has had a large impact on her creativity, she explained.
“Like any other artist, I have always felt a little different from others. I had a hard time for many years to connect to others and turned to artistic pursuits to add colour and spark to my own little world,” she said.
“I utilize my creativity, especially my writing, to triumph my internal feeling of otherness.” In writing she feels confident about “what I want to say and show to the world, as opposed to if I spoke it,” Borgford said.
The event that most influenced Borgford’s creativity was “the passing of my Nokomis Baa,” she explained, using the Anishinaabe way of saying grandmother and adding the suffix “baa” or “ban” to mark respect for one who has passed into the spirit world.
“At the time of her passing I was a young teenager and dealing with mental health struggles, so I did not learn as much as I would have liked to. I began to take my artistic pursuits more seriously as a way to connect to her,” Borgford said.
“Her impact in my work is very prominent, and I take care to show that as much as I can,” said the author, who is currently in the Indigenous Studies program at Nipissing University.
Borgford has a dedicated workspace, “a beautiful room surrounded by shelves of beads and drawers filled with every material you could dream of, from quills to dentalium shells to brain tanned hides.” However, she is almost always “out and about” when a new writing idea comes to her.
“Most of my work comes to me without me having to think much about it,” Borgford said. “I sometimes have a general concept I want to explore in mind and the words will just pop into my mind at random times.”
Pizzale, who is also at Nipissing University pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, is a night owl. As an expectant mom, however, she says her late night sessions might shift when her baby is born.
“I’m super excited for my baby girl to see her people and culture when reading my books. I aim to connect to Indigenous peoples as it hasn’t been done in the past,” said Pizzale.
It’s important to Borgford also. “I feel other Indigenous people can connect best with my words.” But she hopes that others can learn from “our words as Indigenous creatives.” She encourages non-Indigenous readers to connect to gain “a better sense of the Indigenous experience in Turtle Island.”
What’s in a Bead illustrates how art can help Indigenous people feel a connection to those who came before us.
“We kept beading though to make sure our ways weren’t lost forever. Our beads wanted to be used. Their spirit called to us, and we listened…because they helped us stay strong in our culture. They told stories about who we are,” the Cree grandmother in What’s in a Bead explains.
Borgford’s work, especially her poetry, is often “influenced and inspired by ceremony,
and I believe wholeheartedly in that being a gift I am blessed with,” she said.
“At times it feels as if the words flow out so effortlessly that I feel like I am working on a story that is not necessarily my own, but a story belonging to a community that needs to be told.”
To order What’s in a Bead? visit Second Story Press here https://secondstorypress.ca/products/whats-in-a-bead?_pos=1&_sid=07b7657b3&_ss=r