From roadkill to the runway: Artist Holly Young on the purse that became an Art in Bloom sensation

by Diane Richard 
Long before anyone knew what COVID-19 was, or that Mia would close this spring because of it, Holly Young was in Bismarck, North Dakota, thinking about the 2019 Sante Fe Indian Market. It was several months before the nation’s premier showcase for Native artists, and Young was looking for a challenge. So she dug into her stash of roadkill porcupine quills.

Holly Young

She transformed the quills, along with leather and feathers, into a lavish purse imagined for the catwalk. At the market, her extraordinary artwork caught the eye of Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Mia’s associate curator of Native American art. Snared, more like it. Like an eagle surveys a fox eyeing a hare, Young noted Ahlberg Yohe circling back multiple times to examine the purse. When Ahlberg Yohe approached her to praise it, Young felt euphoric. Before long, a purchase was brewing. Three members of the Friends of the Institute—Maria Eggemeyer, Maria Wagner Reamer, and Therese M. Blaine—generously opened their own pocketbooks to secure the purse for the museum’s collection.

Raised in Fort Yates, North Dakota., and now living in Bismarck, Young wasn’t sure the artist life was for her. In times of doubt, the rich art legacy of her Dakota ancestors sustains her. Now, she hopes to be a bridge for future artists—her 12-year-old daughter, Inyan, for instance. “She has finally got into art herself,” she says. “She is such a huge part of my art journey. I feel like it’ll bring us closer.”

Here, she talks about her heritage and the purse, called Floral Legacy, which was chosen as the featured work for Art in Bloom at Mia this year.

How does the natural world inspire you?

I grew up with my grandma out in the country. We lived in a really small house, seven miles out of town on a few acres of land. I don’t think nature was important to me at that time. When I look at my own art now, though, I can see how it was poking its head out. It’s something that’s in me, in my memory. The plants, the flowers, the relationship with the land, the healing properties that come from those things are very inspirational to my art.

I also look at the natural world as the life cycle and the relationship the animals and plants have to one another to survive. I feel that’s how my art life is. I lean on my community, the people, and the traditions to inspire me. I don’t think I flourish without it. Personally, how the natural world has the power to regenerate itself, that’s how I feel about myself as an artist. We have our highs and lows. Sometimes your art life is going really good; sometimes it’s difficult. Pulling from my community, someone will say an encouraging word and I’m able to regenerate myself.

What inspired you to make Floral Legacy?

This was only my second year at the Indian Market. I needed to come up with a big project to challenge myself. Everyone knows me as a bead worker. I knew I wanted to do quillwork; I had just taught myself quillwork. I also do ledger art. I was finishing a ledger piece, and I drew a lady who was holding a bag. I remember thinking, “This is really cute. That’s what I should make.” At the time I thought it wouldn’t be so hard. I really humbled myself thinking how fast it would go. It did not turn out to be like that. It took forever.

To read more of this article: go to the Mia website, here.