Dana Warrington lives in a world where the traditional is blended with the modern on a regular basis.

"What you're doing is, you're just taking old concepts and reviving them, almost putting your own contemporary flair to it," he tells SFR by phone from his home in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains.

The Wisconsin-born Menominee Indian artist crafts in the traditional medium of porcupine quillwork, and is set to embark on his first solo exhibition in Santa Fe at the Good Folk gallery this week. The lead-up to the show, Warrington says, has been an eye-opener, because he didn't even realize he was a folk artist.

"I was born and raised on the Reservation, so we weren't really exposed to all the different types of art," he explains. "We were just exposed to a lot of traditional art."

He says he had no clue what folk art was until Good Folk owner Thais Mather explained it to him.

"She said something as simple as, 'People would make it even if they weren't selling it.' I thought, that's Native American craft to a tee," Warrington continues. "At one time [Native Americans] did make these tools for survival, or these quills for survival. You know, that's what was going to get them through the winter."

Quillwork consists of dyeing porcupine quills and then using them in a way similar to beadwork to create a range of goods including clothing, jewelry and day-to-day items. Warrington says that because quillwork requires the artist to create their own materials, it takes twice as long as ordinary beadwork; a cradle board—basically a carrier for babies—he'll display at Good Folk, for example, took him over 250 hours to complete.

The results of that labor are stunningly colorful works with intricate designs that look like a cross between stitch work and beading. Warrington describes it as "twice as exciting as beadwork," and though the ancient craft had started dying out as beading became more popular with Native artists, he also says he's seen a resurgence in the last decade.

"It seems like the porcupine quillwork got another breath of fresh air, and [we've] started seeing it more, just done in more of a contemporary modern way," he says. "I think that's what keeps our traditional craft alive."

This cradle board, titled “Wapenoneh,” took Warrington 250 hours to complete.
This cradle board, titled “Wapenoneh,” took Warrington 250 hours to complete. | Courtesy Dana Warrington

Warrington says he's been doing some form of artwork all his life, but he only took up quillwork within the last 10 years. He grew up dancing on his reservation, and says that as the dances became more contemporary, they also became competitive. He wanted to wear quillwork regalia for a unique edge over his competition.

"So being a craftsman I figured 'You can make it,'" he recalls.

But because no one on his reservation worked with quills, he had to teach himself.

"It was about a year of trial and error of actually literally learning the craft," he says. "Then, once I got good at it, it was kind of like an addiction."

Warrington follows his solo show with a booth at Indian Market—his third appearance—this weekend. He says the Market is special to him because his first visit as a spectator came at a time when he was trying to decide between pursuing art as a career, or finishing his studies as a residential builder. The Market, he says, set him on the career path he now travels.

"I had no idea that a world like that even existed," Warrington remembers. "Once I'd seen art work at that level, I got addicted to the actual artwork part of it."

He's been preparing for his trip to Santa Fe for months, as he does every year, and those months have been spent creating pieces that follow his own inspirations, rather than someone else's.

"When you do commission work, you're creating someone else's vision, based on colors they want, different types of dance article pieces that they want," he says. "One thing that [my appearances] at Indian Market allow me to do is create my own vision with my show pieces."

Menominee Indian craftsman Dana Warrington says he’ll be “more than happy” to talk about his art with anyone interested, both at Good Folk gallery and the Indian Market.
Menominee Indian craftsman Dana Warrington says he’ll be “more than happy” to talk about his art with anyone interested, both at Good Folk gallery and the Indian Market. | Courtesy Dana Warrington

And Warrington says that the Market, which turns 98 this year, provides a seamless blend of traditional and contemporary art that's present in his work.

"Being a visitor to that land and especially a younger artist—I'll be 40 this fall but I still consider myself a young artist—you have a lot of respect and appreciation for the elders and the people who have built that market over the years to what it is," he says. "But I think that market, over the last 98 years, has also [gained] a contemporary feel to it."

An appreciation for deep history is what drives Warrington to complete the week-long, 2,800-mile-roundtrip journey just to Santa Fe to participate in the market.

"It's like the artwork kind of has taken on a being of its own," he concludes. "I'm along for the ride, so to speak."

Dana Warrington: Lost Artform Comes Alive
5 -8 pm, Thursday August 15. Free.
Good Folk
141 Lincoln Ave., 983-1660

Santa Fe Indian Market
7 am-5 pm, Saturday August 17 and Sunday August 18. Free.
Santa Fe Plaza, Booth 682