By Joy Goddard
Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory
Melanie Gray’s sterling silver cedar necklace catches the sunlight as it dangles from her neck. The piece is like a snowflake—one-of-a-kind—cast from the cedar she collected near her home. Embedded in her art is a deep respect for nature, a reflection of her Haudenosaunee roots.
“When taking a plant to use for my art, I give thanks to the Creator and sprinkle tobacco (grown from her garden) at the base of the plant, giving back to it,” she says. “I put good words to the art.”
She is especially reverent when creating art from a deceased animal or bird. Encountering a dead porcupine on the road, she expresses her gratitude to the animal aloud before taking its quills to make earrings. Similarly, she burns sage and sweetgrass to give back to the bird that’s lost its life before she uses its feathers in her art. “In the Indigenous culture, nothing goes to waste.”
Indigenous traditional teachings inspire her art, with the legend of the Three Sisters (beans, corn, and squash) reflected in some of her designs. She explains that while art gives us a way to express ourselves, historically, it served primarily as a function. Taking clay from the Earth to make adorned pottery, for instance. Gray honours this by showcasing old Haudenosaunee pottery in her necklaces.
Beauty and power stem from Indigenous learning. “We can enjoy jewelry because it is pretty, but it can speak to you too,” she says. Her blue lace agate necklace is a case in point. “I’m always grateful to work with such a peaceful stone. It reminds me of a breezy day when the water is calm.” Gray’s moonstone jewelry reflects the legend of Grandmother Moon, who watches over everybody and embodies power, strength, and beauty like the stone.
Art’s hold over her began when she was a small child. She remembers the excitement of sitting at her cousin’s (Kathy Loft) kitchen table making a daisy chain. When Gray was twenty-one, art helped her cope with the grief of her mother’s death. Now, she helps other people struggling with mental health issues through her various art therapy groups.
A graduate of the Toronto Art Therapy Institute, she provides a safe space for people to express themselves. “Sometimes we don’t have words, so art can be a vessel to begin the conversation about self. It is powerful,” she says. “A single painting can topple empires.”
She’s also a trained silversmith who co-teaches a beginner’s course at The Kingston Lapidary and Mineral Club (The Tett Centre).
Her brand is Little Owl. Both she and her late mother (who called her Little Owl) love owls. Indeed, the night her mother died, Gray spotted an owlet on the rain barrel at home as she pulled into the driveway. Although she’ll choose a Kanyen’kéha name in the future, for now, she calls herself Little Owl.
Find Melanie Gray’s jewelry at Rebecca Maracle Mohawk Feathersmith Gift & Gallery in Tyendinaga or @littleowljewelry on Instagram and Facebook.