Garmel Rich of Rigolet, Labrador recently was inducted into the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council Hall of Honour for her dedication to a traditional Inuit craft of grass weaving.
At 73 years old, Rich has put countless hours into creating unique gifts and hand woven souvenirs and passing on the art to others. Garmel told the Labradorian she sometimes refers to grass work as ‘sculptures’. “ There’s almost anything you can create if you put your mind to it,” says Rich, who has made anything from miniature komatiks, boat and motor, table and chairs, tea sets, napkin holders, hot plate mats, doll cradles and more.
“I just think of something and I would wonder if I could make it and I use to make it. Or perhaps my children would want something made and I’d make that, ” she said.
Garmel once created a 12-inch replica of the Stanley cup for her son.
The material Rich uses for her grasswork are collected from the land. She collects the long reeds of grass she gathers within her home community of Rigolet as well as from North West River.
She said while there are a variety of materials in specialty craft stores that grass weavers could chose from, she prefers to use the natural state of wild grass, rarely altering the color. “There is enough color there,” she says. “Raffia (reed from palm trees) tends to fade after a while. I think some people use embroidery floss, you can use that too, but that won’t fade I don’t think.”
Garmel says as a child, she can remember the adults making grass buckets or baskets and using them to hold sewing supplies or ‘knick knacks’. “Some of them were colored and some of them were opened, some would put hangers on them,” Rich added.
Born in Bluff Head, Labrador in 1939 at 7 years old, Garmel said she started to take an interest in grass work after seeing her family and the people in her community practicing the art. “It was always around me when I was growing up,” said Rich.
“I would just watch and I can’t remember anyone making sure that I was taught or anything, it’s just that I picked it up from seeing it being done.”
By her teens she began selling her handmade grass work on the market in industrial shops located in Cartwright and St. Anthony, NL.
“In those times almost everybody did it. They could exchange it for clothes or get a little bit of money for it and that was a great help long ago.”
“When I used to make a lot of it, it was like a full-time job. I was selling quite a lot to the craft shops and there were orders I had.”
“I just think of something and I would wonder if I could make it and I use to make it. Or perhaps my children would want something made and I’d make that.” - Garmel Rich
With a large family to care for, Garmel said it became much easier to spend time at the craft once her youngest child went off to school.
“It takes a lot of hours to make something,” says Rich. For smaller pieces, like a weaved bowl could take an average one week with 2-3 hours each day to make.
Rich has also been teaching the technique of grass work in workshops and had also passed the tradition to her daughter Josie. She said can’t recall the total number of people she has taught grass weaving, but says each class would have up to 10 people who participated. In Labrador, she says there are a few people that she knows of still that continues to make grass work.
“I did a lot of workshops years back but, I don’t do any anymore,” says Rich.
In the early 80’s she also participated in the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, where she displayed her work in the artisan village. She also attended expos in Vancouver, PEI and other regions throughout Canada.
Rich once remembers spending a full year dedicated solely to making grass work pieces which she sold all 63 items she had created for a show in St. John’s, NL.
Throughout the years Rich’s pieces have reached every corner of the world including Japan and also a creation in a cathedral in Scotland.
“I love to do it. It’s a craft that you love or you don’t,” she said.
When she gets the opportunity, Rich says she also does other crafts but grass work takes up most of her time.
“I don’t get many done but I still know how to do crafts if I get an order for something,” stated Rich.
“It’s kind of unique, it’s good for somebody who’s got everything and you are looking for something different such as a wedding gift or a special gift like that.”
Unable to attend the award at the ceremony held in Gander, NL, Rich told the Labradorian she was very honored to be recognized for her work. “I knew I was being nominated but I didn’t think I’d win, but I did. It was an honour. I very much appreciated it.”
While there are a number of Elders in the community who know how to weave, Rich said she hopes that the tradition keeps continuing across Labrador.
“I hope that some of the young people will remember how it’s done and keep the craft going, it would be a shame for it to die away,” she said.