Meet the Artist: An Interview with Penobscot Artist Martha Newell

by Wabanaki Marketplace

For thousands of years Wabanaki people have been creating beautiful works of art influenced by and sourced from the world around them. We love hearing about how our artists started making their artwork and what influences their creations so we met with Penobscot artist Martha Newell to ask her a few questions about her work.

How did you start bead working?

I started when I was living with my Aunt Patty, who also beads. One day I was bored so she just started teaching me and I was hooked. Later on I started working with Nin. I started with making earrings and branched out from there.

What was it like working with them?

It was pretty casual and they’re family so it was always entertaining! We would laugh the whole time we were beading together. It was a lot of fun.

Tell me about the kind of bead work you do. 

Beaded Shoes by Martha Newell (Penobscot)

I like to do a mashup of traditional and contemporary styles. The way I see it, we should do whatever we want when it comes to our art. I see beadwork everywhere and I make sure I incorporate everything into my work.

I started with more traditional earrings first, brick stitched earrings, and then I branched out from there. I made these great beaded hoops for myself years ago and right now I’m beading shoes for myself. When they’re finished they’ll be covered and they’ll have beaded panels.

That’s great. So you really don’t limit yourself to one particular form?

Nope. Sometimes people will give me things to bead on and there are other times I’ll sew by myself. My work is more rez. Modern rez. I’ve been playing with a lot of everything and I love trying different avenues with my work. Sometimes I put sea glass in my work and other times I use birch bark. I do a bit of everything.

Do you plan out your work beforehand or do your designs come to you when you start working?

Both. Sometimes I have a really great design that I lay out and I’ll make those. Sometimes I just go with the flow. It depends on how I’m feeling.

I like seeing all these different projects you’ve done. Are there any more that stick out to you?

Of course! I have this great beadwork piece that is in the Abbe Museum collection. It’s a large 3D beadwork butterfly. I beaded five separate pieces and stitched them together to get the right form for the butterfly so the wings are layered. They also have one that’s a barrette that I made the same way.

Some people might look at your work and say it’s not what they picture when they think of Native American art. Do you have a response to that?

Beaded Hoops by Martha Newell (Penobscot)

Yeah, don’t listen to that. (Laughs) We shouldn’t limit ourselves to one style or another. I create whatever and do what I want. These are our traditions and our culture but we aren’t stuck in the past.

Where can people find you if they want to buy from you directly?

I like going to some of the markets we have here in Maine to sell my work, to demonstrate, and to talk to people. I loved hearing from my customers. There’s one mother and daughter I’m thinking of that always come to find me to buy my work. When the daughter can’t make it, the mom comes and says, “My daughter sent me! She wants me to get some cool ones.” So if you want to find me, come to those! I usually go to the Annual Native American Festival and Basketmakers in Bar Harbor and the Annual Maine Indian Basketmakers Sale and Demonstration in Orono.

Eventually I want to find myself at Santa Fe Indian Market. So you may have to find me there as well.

(A note to our readers: there are four central markets Wabanaki artists attend in Maine. You can find the dates and locations on our Markets page).

Woliwon! Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Of course! Any time.

Shop the Martha Newell Collection