Kelly Church, a fifth-generation basket weaver, grew up in southwestern Michigan. She studied the Odawa language from her paternal grandmother and learned black ash basketry from her cousin, John Pigeon. She in turn taught her daughter, Cherish Parrish. Church earned an Associate of Fine Arts degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2006 and Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan in 2008.
Kelly harvests her own trees with her family in swampy areas of rural Michigan. Preparing materials takes far longer than the actual weaving. She removes the bark from the felled log, and then splits apart the growth rings into finer and finer splints for basketry. The splints are dyed then soaked before weaving.
Her baskets range from the utilitarian fishing creels, market baskets, and bark baskets to traditional, rectangular wedding baskets and whimsical strawberry baskets. She creates experimental baskets, with materials such as copper, photographs, and plastic window blinds – the latter a warning of what the future might look like without black ash trees.
Kelly is one of fewer than a dozen birch bark biters. This traditional Great Lakes art form involves biting designs with one’s eyeteeth into folded sheet of young paper birch bark. The bit areas turn a dark brown that contrasts with the pale surface of the bark. Her designs are both abstract and representational, featuring turtles, dragonflies, and other designs.
Inspired by the Woodlands Style of painting created by Norval Morrisseau, Kelly paints characters from her tribes’ oral histories, such as Nanabozho, or the wildlife native to Michigan, such as Sandhill Cranes. She typically works in acrylic on canvas and uses contrasting colors for maximum optical brilliance.