Artist in Residence: Yani Smith's Native Quillwork

Artist in Residence: Yani Smith’s Native Quillwork

This month, AS220 is excited to host artist Yolanda “Yani” Smith as Artist in Residence, in partnership with the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, RI.

A big thank you to Loren Spears, Executive Director of the Tomaquag Museum, for making this happen. The Mission of Tomaquag Museum is to educate the public and promote thoughtful dialogue regarding Indigenous history, culture, arts, and Mother Earth and connect to Native issues of today.

Yani is an active Native artist of Rhode Island. She has been an apprentice and artisan of North Eastern Quillwork and Beadwork for the past 3-6 years. As a child, Yolanda watched her mother religiously create contemporary and traditional Native art. While learning at her side, she observed how that body of work touched people’s lives throughout the Native community. It wasn’t until her late 20s that she decided to put her skills at play. Through recognizing and reflecting on the struggles of identity being a Native woman in today’s America, Yolanda began expressing herself through two art forms of choice: traditional pre-contact quillwork and contemporary beadwork. Most of her work is a mixture of the two, connecting both the past and the present. Over the past 6 years her work has been sold, demonstrated, taught and exhibited at numerous Native cultural events throughout New England. She was recently a featured artist in the Warwick Museums “Love Medicine” exhibit in February, and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts’s “Art Unifies Communities” exhibit and the “Native American” exhibit of 2014.


Yolanda will exhibit her work at the MOTE Gallery at the AS220 INDUSTRIES (131 Washington St) from December 4th-6th.  
Don’t miss Yolanda’s Artist Talk on Saturday, December 6 @ AS220’s MOTE Gallery at the AS220 INDUSTRIES. Free Admission.


unnamed-2 Yani Smith - AIR Nov 2014

Jacqueline Silva (RISD) interviews Yani Smith:

  1. What has influenced your work the most?

    “Pretty much my surroundings, everything around me. When I was interacting with some of the residents that are on the floor, I introduced myself and told them who I was, that I’m Native & doing traditional Native work. The interactions I had with them,   regardless of how small they were, had an impact. I don’t believe in coincidence, every encounter has meaning and purpose. Talking with one resident here at AS220, he stated he didn’t know much about Native history. And I responded by saying that didn’t know enough about my history either, but I’m learning everyday. Whenever I talk with a non-native, and the topic of the Indigenous People of this land comes up, it reminds me of how much I really don’t know. I picked one piece for this project that I didn’t know much about because I know the process will bring me that much closer to understanding the past. And that’s one of the reasons I do the work that I do, to learn and for cultural continuity.”

  2. You have a strong relationship with your mother, do you both make similar work? 

We collaborate a lot and she pretty much taught me everything I know. If you look at our work side by side, sometimes its hard to tell the difference, but I’m still an amateur in comparison since she’s been doing this for over 25 years. Her creativity comes so naturally and it’s inspiring and always keeping me on my toes. As a matter of fact most of my family is talented in some sort of way, whether it be art, education, story telling, singing, etc. there’s inspiration all around me. Lately I’ve been getting involved with artists more my own age. Most of my work stays within the Native community, which is not a good thing because I’m in my comfort zone, where the work I do is already understood. Speaking with young Native artists, and networking here and across country, I’m constantly reminded about breaking boundaries as well as maintaining what’s traditional. Because we are still misunderstood, especially Natives in New England.”

  1. You use a lot of quills, birch bark, and Wampanoag shells in your work. What inspires you to work with these kinds of materials? 

I like the process in its entirety. Its not always like going to the art store and getting supplies. A lot of the materials you find for yourself in your environment. Certain things you learn to harvest yourself, which is an essential thing to know when you’re doing traditional work. Quillwork is definitely my favorite. It challenges me.”

  1. How has your artistic process developed into what it is today? 

Working with quills is such a tedious process, and Natives used quills less and less because of that fact. What began replacing quillwork was beadwork. Quillwork applique in comparison to beadwork applique is a more tedious process. It’s a dying art which is one of the reasons why I chose to pick up the craft. When I first started learning, it was frustrating. Its not something you can just learn on a chalkboard or from a book. Well…not me anyways. Some can learn that way but I need one on one teacher time to learn a craft like that. I had to sit right next to my mother and watch her do the same thing several times to learn the different techniques. It took me a year to get comfortable enough to find my own system and style that was actually my own.”

  1. Describe your work and experience being in Warwick Museums “Love Medicine” exhibit in February. 

I was invited to exhibit some of my work in the Warwick Museums ‘Love Medicine’ exhibit. It was humbling considering they made me the featured artist. I was so nervous because I thought my pieces weren’t worth being in the museum. Sometimes I set my standards too high, even for myself. The theme I chose for all my pieces was a strawberry theme, which symbolizes love and reconciliation in our culture. It was a different atmosphere than what I’m used to. The exhibition included many artisans I know in the Native community here, some of whom I’m often with at events. I wasn’t expecting it to go so well and for so many Natives to see and support the work.”

  1. What do you plan on making this month and how will you collaborate with AS220?

I’ve been working on a pipe bag and a beaded top hat. The pipe bag is the traditional piece I chose to make. I never really got into silkscreening or printing of any kind on my own, but I was thinking of using that medium to put a design on the top hat. Its a little scary trying to do something traditional in AS220’s setting, but I think its a good start in getting out of my comfort zone and in collaborating with AS220 while honoring Native Heritage month.”

  1. What’s next for you?

I want to get into different crafts. Quillwork isn’t the only traditional thing I want to do. I did an apprenticeship with a Northeastern potter, I want to get into ceramics more. I also just want to keep learning how to do indigenous crafts.”