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Untitled (birch bark biting)
birch-bark, birch bark biting, image imprint, eye-tooth use in birch bark biting, geometric designs, traditional First Nations art forms, nature in art forms, environment and art, bark transparencies, transparent design, birch bark biting styles, skills in birch bark biting, images of animals in birch bark biting, Woodland Cree style of birch bark bitings, Woodland Cree women, biting images, use of birch bark designs for beadwork, quillwork and birch bark biting,

Birch bark bitings, known as “wigwas mamacenawejegan” in Ojibwa, can also be referred to as “chews” and are one of the oldest Aboriginal art forms. They are produced by folding a thin sheet of birch bark and biting into it to mark or pierce the surface. When unfolded, the birch bark would then reveal a  symmetricalFormal balance where two sides of a design are identical.  design. A small biting can be created in as little as two to three minutes. Initially, the finished bitings were used as ideas or templates for more serious beadwork and later discarded when they were no longer useful.

start quoteI would sit there for hours, and I ended up wasting a lot of birch bark, but what kept me going was that I knew this was special, this was what I wanted to do.end quote-- Angelique Merasty

To prepare to make a bark biting, Merasty would have to find supple sheets of birch bark that were knot free and easily separated.  Once separated, a sheet of bark would be folded two or more times and the design would usually develop from the center of the fold and move outward toward the edges. By the very nature of the process the resulting images are balanced and symmetrical and no two works are ever the same.

Once everything was prepared, and before beginning to bite into the bark, Merasty needed to imagine and formulate in her mind the image she wanted to represent. The success of the image imprint and design development was dependent upon the use of the eye-tooth. As Angelique developed her skills, she was able to make a biting from start to finish without stopping to look at her progress. Her early designs were more geometric, but as she developed her own style, she started to use images of animals and flowers. The sizes of her works varied from seven-and-a-half centimetres to around twenty-five centimetres, because good, large pieces of birch bark are often hard to find. The best birch bark for this process can be found in the spring and it needs to be separated into thin layers before the process can begin. “Transparencies” are made from specially prepared and folded bark and are held up to the light to reveal the design.

Heather Dyck comments about the finished works, “Different bite intensities, repetitions, and folds make each birch bark biting unique. The biting is completed when it is held up to the sun so that the bark warms to a golden hue and the hundreds of perforations are filled with light.” The finished works are reminiscent of  embroideryTo embroider is to ornament with needlework — making and arranging stitches of variously coloured threads — or to make by means of needlework. Embroidery is the act or art of embroidering. Or, it is ornamention of fabric with needlework, a piece of embroidered fabric, or embellishment with fanciful details. Fabric to be embroidered can be more easily worked if it is stretched within an embroidery hoop. Most embroidery needles are curved. (  or lace doilies and are widely sought by collectors world wide. (Dyck, 2000).

Birch bark


additional resources Things to Think About
  • Can you think of other cultures where families have developed images to represent their families?
  • Do you have any family traditions that have been passed down to you that you enjoy?
  • Why do you think the best bark would be found in the spring? Where would Merasty find it?
  • Have you ever made artworks using supplies or materials found in nature? What are the benefits of doing this?
Studio Activity
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Simulate birch bark biting

  • Cut paper and carbon paper into approximately eight centimetre pieces.
  • With both sheets together and the carbon paper on the inside, fold them in half and in half again, to form a small square.
  • Begin biting along the folds.  By biting down with more pressure you can get darker marks.
  • Open your paper when finished and remove the carbon paper to reveal your image or pattern.

Pin-prick drawing

  • Make geometric patterns using a compass and protractor on black paper.
  • Push the compass end through the paper to reveal pin pricks of light when the paper is held to the light.
  • Attach the works to the window so the patterns are revealed.

Dyck, Heather.  ‘Birch Bark Biting Unique Art Form.’  Tisdale Tribune, April 10, 2000.

Lee-Ann Martin.  Wigwas: The Art of Birch Bark Biting.  Exhibition catalogue, MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1999.

McLuhan, Elizabeth. ‘Birch Bark Biting.’ The Canadian Encyclopedia, undated.  Retrieved from the Internet on March 27, 2009 from:

McLuhan, E. and M. Zoccole. Wigwas: Birch Biting by Angelique Merasty.  Publisher unknown, 1983.


Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning