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Nipmuc artist sees 'designs everywhere'

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - Sierra Henries has been making art for as long as she can remember. Now the 21-year-old Nipmuc tribal member is emerging as an accomplished artist of the traditional art of wood burning on birch bark.

Sierra comes from a family of artistic talent. Her father is Hawk Henries, a well-known musician and flute maker, and her sister is a dancer. In June, the Henries family was on Indian Island in Maine for the first Penobscot Indian Nation Pow-wow where Hawk performed and sold his handmade flutes, and Sierra sold her delicate wood-burned birch bark artwork.

She is a natural, self-taught artist.

''I didn't actually study art. I've been drawing since I was very young. I've just been drawing and doing art in general for as long as I can remember. It's just always come naturally to me and it's always been something I've been completely involved in. I've never gone to school for it. I've never actually been to school: I've been homeschooled all my life.''

A large part of her education has come from traveling. She was born in New Mexico, where the family lived for a while; now the family travels all over the country and beyond, accompanying her father to his performances at pow wows, concerts and other venues. The family recently returned from England, where Hawk performed with the London Mozart Players. He has also performed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, the American Folk Festival and the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

''That's usually what gets us places. He definitely has a following and quite a few people invite him to quite a few different, really amazing, places to play and that's given us a lot of opportunities for me to explore the world and meet so many people I would never have met if I had to stay in school,'' Sierra said. ''It also helped me learn a lot of new art techniques and see a lot of art I wouldn't have seen if I had stayed'' in the Nipmucs' traditional territory across what became Massachusetts.

Sierra's art evolved over the years. She and her sister used to make jewelry to sell at the shows. She later started wood burning on Christmas ornaments, then gourds and finally advanced to birch bark.

''I know a lot of people who did etchings. They would scrape away the bark to get the different colors; some people did birch bark biting, a very ancient technique where thin layers of bark are folded and bitten to make patterns. The first thing I do is I go and collect the bark. Sometimes that's from the ground, if it presents itself to me or I collect it off the trees. I have to peel off layers to make sure I have a clean layer and that it's thin enough - but it can't be too thin because then it would burn through. Then I sketch my design and wood burn it.''

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The designs are all drawn freehand. The butterfly seems to be Sierra's signature design, but others are abstract or geometric forms resembling the meditative mandalas of Eastern religious art.

The mandala-like patterns ''don't have any specific meaning. They have certain energies put into each one. I see designs everywhere, from the gravel in my driveway to items in the grocery store. There are lines and circles and lines popping out everywhere and they kind of collect themselves and form the designs I do on the birch bark, although sometimes I do manage to shut my eyes and there does happen to be a new one there.''

She is working on a Web site to showcase her work. Meanwhile, her birch bark art is on display at the Abbe Museum in Maine, which specializes in art by the Wabanaki tribes of the area.

Sierra said she learned a lot about being an artist from her father, not the least of which is how to be with people and how to share herself with people; he has also taught her about diversity and the universality of art-making.

Hawk talks about flute and music making on his Web site at

''Each hand-made flute is created from a single piece of wood, using only hand tools and fire. Like us, each is a one-of-a-kind, unique. In that way, flutes are a special vehicle for celebrating the diversity of common humanity.

''Music has the great potential for bridging gaps between cultures and peoples. Because of this, music can be a way for people to see beyond what we look like and what it is that we do in terms of living on Earth.''

Sierra said she hopes to be an artist forever.

''I've always dreamed of being an artist and it seems to be what's happening, so I'm very happy with where it's going. I think I would love to expand to different media, but also keep the base of birch bark work, because it feels so real to me and it's an element I'd like to always keep in my work.''