Nancy Oakley

Artist, Eskasoni, Nova Scotia
< Back to all stories

Local artist revives lost Mi’kmaq art form through pottery

For Nancy Oakley, art and working with her hands has been part of her life since she was a teenager. Before moving to Eskasoni after college, the First Nations artist of Mi’kmaq and Wampanoag descent grew up in Massachusetts, where her father was the grand chief of the Wampanoag Nation.

“I love this community. My mother was from Eskasoni. Growing up, my mother and I did our own Mi’kmaq regalia, we were traditional dancers, and I used to spend a lot of time in my aunt and uncle’s basket shop in Eskasoni.”

Her exposure to art at a young age led her to study photography at school, with a particular fondness for the dark room. Although she did take one class in pottery, she continued on the path of photography until the introduction of digital took her out of the dark room and led her back to her roots in basketry, beadwork, and then eventually back to pottery.

“What I like most about pottery is working with my hands. You get lost when you’re making something – it’s calming” she says.

Nancy admits that in the beginning of her now 24-year career, it was more about providing for her family than it was the art, something that art funding, like Nova Scotia Gaming’s Support4Culture program, has transformed.

“It opens me up to new experiences and new levels because it helps me to push myself to create something more, and something better, and something more meaningful,” she says.

Eventually, Nancy crossed paths with Cora Woolsey, an archeologist studying Mi’kmaq pottery from about 1,000 years ago. “I realized that was something I wanted to do; to recreate what we had so long ago,” she says.

From there, Nancy dedicated herself to revitalizing traditional Mi’kmaq art; learning how to make her own clay from her backyard using local, ground mussel shells as her ancestors had in generations past – a passion art funding has helped sustain.

“Art funding impacts the community because it brings a community together, encourages people, and it introduces other people to who we are,” she says. “I’m representing my community, I’m representing my tribe, my people, my culture.”

Looking ahead, Nancy hopes to continue practicing traditional Mi’kmaq art with a goal of one day pursuing teaching.

“It’s really touching to know that what I’m doing means something to some people. Because Nova Scotia Gaming has Support4Culture, I was able to learn more about my culture and am now able to share that with future generations.”