The Effort Behind The Artwork: Who is Jaad Kuujus?

By: Bill Reid Gallery

Interface: the woven artwork of Jaad Kuujus is now open upstairs in the mezzanine in the Bryan and Audrey Williams Gallery. This stunning focus exhibition features the incredibly detailed weavings of Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw artist, Jaad Kuujus (Meghann O'Brien) and our Satellite Shop Manager and Buyer, Todd Tregilges had the pleasure to share some of her artistic journey leading up to this new exhibition:

I first met former Olympic snowboarder Meghann O’Brien, when founder and president of Scriba Art Society, Dr. Martine Reid brought her by the gallery. She was quiet, reserved, intelligent and had a beautiful energy about her. Two things struck me most about Meghann, the quality of, and the connection to, the work that she produces. 

As someone who has seen a lot of artwork in his profession, I can appreciate when I see something exceptional, especially in a contemporary context. While I have seen a lot of very old finely hand-woven spruce root baskets, I have never seen a contemporary basket so finely hand-woven, as the one pictured below:

As a general rule, what I have seen in cedar is a much coarser style of weave, while Spruce root is typically very finely woven. The finer the weave, the more time involved in the preparation of the materials. All of the material that Meghann uses in her weaving (both basketry and mountain goat wool blankets), is hand collected and processed by her. The above pictured basket was woven of hand split yellow cedar bark.

In the above visual essay we see how Meghann processes all the material used for her blankets. I asked Meghann how she prepared the materials for this meticulous and beautifully done basket, and this is what she said:

“I use a small needle for this to basically get the filament of a cedar strand down as fine as it will be before it snaps, then I give it a little tug between my fingers. If I do it, and it breaks then I don’t use it.”

I was enthralled as I listened to this artist describe this painstaking process that she went through, just to obtain the materials used in this tiny basket. I was really curious as to how long something like this would take to produce, and I was amazed by the answer.

“For a small basket like the one shown,  I can give a very precise estimation because I had a deadline to meet. The top 1 cm of the basket and the lid (a rattle top lid) took 2 months, working full time (7 days a week). In fact my hands got very sore! I estimate the total time if it was woven straight through, would be six months, but I typically spread it out over a year or two between other life projects.”

I was in awe. I think part of the reasons for this was how much respect I felt for this person, a true artist, who connected with her abilities, and directed all of her energies into the production of something so small, but so special. I wanted to know more, so I asked where this strong connection to the Haida & Kwakwaka’wakw culture(s) came from.

“The strong connection to the culture(s) came later in life, when I started weaving for berry picking baskets in 2007. I think it comes from my maternal Haida lineage, which is very strong… I weave the baskets the way Kerri Dick taught me, which I guess from what I’ve heard from others, is neither Haida nor Kwakwaka’wakw, but her unique style. She calls it Kwaida, as a joke we say we’re Kwaida girls.” 

The above interview of Meghann was done with the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

Visit the Gallery to view her exceptional collection of works and find the exhibition catalogue in our online shop