Rediscovering the early ways
As an artist, curator, musician, writer and cultural historian, Arthur Kirmss has undertaken many diverse creative projects over his career — from his exploration of secular and spiritual themes in sculpture and painting, his recreation and demonstrations of primitive craft methods, and his expertise in hand engraving and printmaking, to his performances of early music on the recorders and vocal concerts of historical rarities.
Perhaps one of Arthur’s most important contributions to our collective American heritage, however, is his rediscovery and practice of making wampum as it would have been crafted in the 17th century. After many years of research, trial and occasional frustration, he arrived at a process that works. Arthur tells us:
Finely made wampum was the essential medium of exchange in New Amsterdam's first commerce of an “international” nature — literally, between European and Native nations. I think of the craft as it was practiced by the Algonquians and the Dutch as a kind of fusion art and intercultural activity — a combination of pre-industrial Native American and Colonial American materials and shared skills.
In 1988, I published an illustrated article on the use of the bow drill in making pre contact type discoidal shell beads. After years of practice and experimentation, I finally succeeded in making the cylindrical wampum beads using the bow drill. You can imagine how difficult it was to determine how a cylindrical bead would have been drilled and shaped in the 1600s. Here there was no teacher but direct experience. The early written records of wampum making left to us are fragmentary and incomplete. Completing the process was like bringing lost shards together into a once more recognizable and usable jug.
The beautiful natural forms of seashells were my first love, and as a boy I enjoyed collecting local and exotic types. When I later studied and became proficient in the fine arts, I combined my interests in shells, the arts and history, and following a long lost path, arrived at a rediscovery of this early craft unique to eastern North America — especially the New York area. Jamaica Bay was one of the traditional collection points for the purple and white Venus clam shell, so as a Brooklyn born native I felt an added motivation to solve the mystery of how these beads were made.
A frequent lecturer and demonstrator of wampum making at museums, historic houses, schools and other cultural venues and events, as well as curator of Cross Currencies—Making Money in Old New York, Arthur is now completing a book on the subject entitled Wampum Revealed. To access a presentaton that illustrates some of Arthur's work, click the Wampum Making tab at the top of this page, or here.
If you are interested in engaging one of Arthur’s programs or exhibits, please call (718) 628-0818 for information or send email to email@example.com.