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Former Pro Snowboarder Turned Traditional Weaver: IAIA Artist-in-Residence Meghann O'Brien

From weaving through snow to weaving earthly materials, Northwest coast traditional weaver Meghann O'Brien is a former pro snowboarder
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The Institute of American Indian Arts Artist-in-Residence program has been bringing in 28 Native artists from the Pacific Northwest, the Upper-Midwest and the Southwest, in a program that started in August 2015. Each residency lasts one month with artists working in studios on campus and presenting talks to students, staff and the public. One of the latest artists bringing their artistry to the program is a former pro snowboarder from Alert Bay, British Columbia and traditional native weaver Meghann O'Brien.

Weaving time and space, as in quantum physics, is where (and when) weaver Meghann O’Brien (Kwakwaka’wakw/Haida/Irish) works from with her intricate, intimate and obsessive weaving. The process not only anchors her but she says she can feel the energy move through her hands as a medium of communicating with her ancestors.

Her artistry dissolves the western concept of time, because as Meghann O’Brien handles the same materials from the earth in the presence of her ancestors, she really does weave with space and time. Building something that did not previously exist is transcribing an empty space with an object, a created basket will take its place in real time to participate in a culture.

Feather Catcher, yellow cedar bark basket, by Meghann O’Brien. Photo by Kenji Negai, courtesy of Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver.

Feather Catcher, yellow cedar bark basket, by Meghann O’Brien. Photo by Kenji Negai.

When she weaves and the object appears. She says It is a new entity - yet it is still connected and in a relationship to the earth from which it comes, it just arrived with a little human help.

Meghann O’Brien says, “Weaving is something in most older cultures that has been regarded as sacred.”

This said, how does the former professional snowboarder from Alert Bay, British Columbia, channel all her energy, power and excitement into such a traditional art that consumes ample time and is often confined to a small space?

Meghann O’Brien explains the concept is not too different from when a trained athlete exerts themselves to become one with and part of the environment. In her artform on a snowboard the wind, snow, moisture become part of the ride and athletic energy.

Meghann O’Brien, professional snowboarder in 2015. Photo: Mason Mashon /

Meghann O’Brien, professional snowboarder in 2015.

The more Meghann O’Brien says she dove into the artform of traditional weaving, the more she says it took hold of her life, and the less she felt for the snowboarding.

In traditional weaving, she she said she felt there was more to gain, to receive, to pass on and to be gifted and give away for her family and clan.

One of her mentors, the acclaimed artist Beau Dick said, “It is a much greater thing to give than it is to receive,” and that most of such artwork and cultural items come into being to teach and instruct and to find their place in the culture still being practiced, culture still alive and healing.

When she gifted the Ravenstail/Yeil Kuwoo robe to a clan chief, she hoped he could feel the weight of what she had learned and received, and the weight of the actual wool she processed and hand wove over 13 months. It also represents the weight of the duties and responsibilities of the chief toward the clan and families.

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When she weaves mountain goat wool she says it's like weaving clouds because it’s where the goats live in the mountains among the clouds.

When she weaves cedar, she says the materials speak to her, teach her and she feels one with and among the materials, which are connected in time and space to the earth.

On her blog Meghann O’Brien says the following about her art:

“Our art moves through us, from a non-material concept growing into form from our energy into objects capable of housing a spirit just as our bodies do. The weaving is a contribution to this greater spirit, born out of the earth and our hands, a language offering symbols and patterns that come from the natural and supernatural realms. They came as gifts from observing and living intimately with the land, and were products from the minds of people whose times have passed yet whose art continues to communicate a way of seeing the world through their work.”

Although Meghann O’Brien faced certain issues of traditional rights at the beginning, she said that “Baskets and weaving are form and function, there are no politics, no issues, no debate about rights or privileges, it is simple back-to-basics and represents our original lifeways and oral traditions.”

Meghann O’Brien discovered that the spirituality of traditional weaving can be balanced with the modern world by working in Haute Couture for high end pieces that are still made with traditional methods.

Meghann O’Brien said, “We have made and wore garments for ceremony as something sacred and of importance, but in the modern world we seem to have lost touch of what we wear on our bodies. Fabrics and textiles are significant, full of meaning and medicine; they are also teachings from tradition.” Having spent time in France at a festival with textile painters and in fabric studios, she says it’s possible to create sales in fashion and still work traditionally.

Screen Capture of Northwest Coast Weaver Meghann O'Brien weavings on jaadkuujus website

Screen Capture of Northwest Coast Weaver Meghann O'Brien weavings.

For more information about Meghann O'Brien visit her website here.

You can also visit the Institute of American Indian Arts Artist-in-Residence program website here.