Photography by Daniel Vaughan
While prominent cultural institutions like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada have improved and continue to engage in discussion about ways to better represent art produced by Indigenous artists, recent initiatives a little closer to home connecting local Indigenous artists to the broader community have been very successful.
Belleville’s Gallery 121 exhibit featuring local Indigenous artists has become so popular it is now a biennial event. Last summer, spearheaded by Mohawk artist Narda Julg, Macaulay Heritage Park in Picton had more than 700 people visit its inaugural local Indigenous art exhibit and sale. The Stirling Library Art Gallery’s fall 2018 exhibit featured five local Indigenous artists.
Internet and social media have helped facilitate this outreach, too. The Artists of Tyendinaga website features 19 painters, plus sculptors, carvers, musicians, and photographers. Some are graduates of university fine arts programs, many describe themselves as self-taught. One thing they have in common is being part of a cultural history rich in artistic expression.
Janice Brant, also known by her Mohawk name Kahéhtoktha, is an artist and educator from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. She says the vibrant artistic community there is not surprising. “From a historical perspective, because we (Mohawk peoples) enjoyed an abundance of food, as agriculturalists, it created a lot of time for personal and artistic expression, so we’re very evolved in terms of our art. With a B.A. in Indigenous Studies from Trent University, and two post-graduate degrees in education, she laughs as she says, “And I think…yes I could get an anthropologist to back me up on that.”
We visited Kahéhtoktha and three other Tyendinaga visual artists to get a glimpse of their lives and their work.
The garden by Kahéhtoktha’s front door is filled with giant zinnias, still brilliant orange, pink, and yellows even in the dusk of early fall. Once inside, the significance of the zinnias’ showy abundance for this artist is obvious. The coffee table in the living room is covered with boxes of seeds, painstakingly harvested with the help of her husband Ken. The seeds are their contribution to a worldwide, albeit small, network of people committed to preserving the world’s biological diversity and food security by saving seeds. On the walls surrounding the seeds are larger than life paintings of traditional plants, among them a Hubbard squash, and a mammoth sunflower in the style of an early vintage seed packet, with the addition of the Mohawk name. Both plants were developed and first cultivated by Mohawks. There are also paintings depicting traditional agricultural practices, such as women cultivating the Three Sisters – corn, beans, and squash.
“For a lot of my paintings I come to the canvas full of joy, full of excitement, full of wanting to tell the story of this Hubbard squash or to tell the story of The Great Tree of Peace and what it means even today, that the message is still alive.”
Busy with her teaching career, Kahéhtoktha has been showing her work publicly for less than a decade. “I’m always glad when people ask me questions and that way, I can share the story. We live day to day without knowing the contributions Native people have made to our society and especially to our food ways, the food we eat, and medicines we have.”
One painting few have asked about is titled The Telling Jail. “I think they look at it and go ‘whoa’ because it’s a little hard to look at.” Kahéhtoktha painted it to process for herself and to tell others how she felt about her treatment, as a victim of childhood sexual assault facing the accused perpetrator in an unsuccessful prosecution. She says the experience, “Was like being abused all over again, maybe even worse.” The painting shows a young girl, modeled from a childhood photograph, standing in a locked jail cell looking out. “This is sort of a Sisters in Spirit painting for me. I hope people will see it and ask me what it’s about.”
Kahéhtoktha is one of a number of artists commissioned by Macaulay Heritage Park for its new permanent exhibit launched November 2018. She provided a framed print and was there recently to see the exhibit. “What a wonderful job they are doing incorporating the works of contemporary Indigenous artists with historical artifacts to demonstrate we are still here.”
We met at the Stirling Public Library where Allison Lynn’s work was on exhibit, along with four other Indigenous artists – Debra Vincent, Doug Brant, AJ VanDrie, and Sue Wade – titled Cultural Richness Revisited. She had driven directly from her job at Quinte Mohawk School in Deseronto where she teaches grades two/three and brought her own children with her, Buddy, three and Daisy, one, with little time to catch her breath, she distracted them with library toys, dealing with their minor interruptions with ease while she talked about her art.
Allison’s prints reflect influences from her Indigenous heritage and her days as a fine arts student at York University and the Ontario College of Art and Design. They include finely rendered black on white images of the four sacred medicines – sage, tobacco, sweet grass, and white cedar, taken from photos of plants grown in her own garden. While a fine arts student she developed an affinity for art nouveau and includes elements in these highly stylized prints. They are labeled with their Mohawk names reflecting her passion for learning, teaching, and preserving the Mohawk language.
The second piece combines three lino prints of women in traditional dress, dancing. She has filled the prints in with watercolours and positioned them in horizontal and vertical rows within a single, large frame creating the illusion of movement, as though they are actually dancing.
Allison is working on some new lino prints and collage pieces for exhibits this summer. “They’re kind of developing in tandem, which is nice because the lino print involves some very dedicated sit-down carving work, whereas the mixed media collage pieces feel a lot more impulsive, I suppose; more choices, a little less planning. I like that right now.” Meanwhile she is grateful for local exhibits like this one. “It’s an exciting time to be a part of this artistic community and to watch some of the seeds that have been planted really start to blossom.”
Cindy Loft knew from an early age she had some artistic talent. “I was a kid when I realized I could draw, when I realized it was something I was good at. I wasn’t good at academics, I wasn’t good at reading, I wasn’t good at math… but I could draw.”
She has arranged her paintings on the walls of the kitchen and living area where she lives with her husband Kenneth Loft. The couple met as teenagers while playing baseball on a nearby field, with four children and six grandchildren they celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this past spring. “I just love colours, you can tell, my kitchen is orange. I love colour everywhere, I always have, and the older I get the brighter my colours get. I’m not as worried about what people think. I’ve always liked bright colours.”
Besides the use of bright colours, many of Cindy’s paintings have southwestern themes and images. “I love Arizona. I was able to go to Arizona about eight years ago with my husband and youngest boy. I just feel like I should have been born there,” she laughed. “The very first painting I ever did, even before I went there, had cactus in it.”
One of her paintings has a desert landscape background, and two horses rearing up and fighting in the foreground, within each horse’s frame is a man. “I was going through a tough time I guess, struggling to decide whether I was going to stay in nursing or change careers. Some of the Aboriginal beliefs say when we die, we come back as animals. This painting shows two warriors coming back as stallions, it shows struggle.”
Busy with her nursing career and raising a family, she somehow found time to keep working on her art. Over the years she has taken art courses at Loyalist College and she gets inspiration from others. When asked about her favourite artists she doesn’t hesitate, “Emily Carr, Michelangelo, and Mary Claus.” Mary Claus is a well known Tyendinaga artist, friend, and neighbour. “Mary has been a godsend. I go to her studio to paint. Mary taught me shading and just to go for it…not to fear it because you can fix it. Mary keeps me on track.”
With her critical eye and dry sense of humour it is easy to see how Mary Claus would be a good mentor. Teaching is in her blood. Both parents, Ella and Leslie Claus, were teachers getting their start when there were four one-room schoolhouses in Tyendinaga. Mary, too, had a long career in education, after getting a B.A. from Western University in the ’60s, she earned a Bachelor of Education and worked in various capacities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. Whenever she had the chance, she read art books, went to galleries, and took art classes. It was then she was exposed to the Impressionists, a style she says has influenced her own work, and it was in Saskatchewan where she first took printmaking classes.
Retired from teaching, Mary has moved home to Tyendinaga, and now lives, along with her dog, a Corgi-cross named Piper, in the house where she and her brother grew up. Then a small mixed farm she remembers driving a tractor, feeding the pigs, and milking cows. It is a cozy bungalow right across the road from what was her grandparent’s farm, where her Dad grew up on York Road. “Treading this land is nice, because I know they did too,” she said.
She recalls they encouraged their childhood artistic pursuits, “Right on the kitchen floor here. Mom and Dad would bring home the groceries and we waited anxiously so we could have the brown paper bags and they’d cut them open and spread them out on the floor and we could do our creative thing with crayons.” Her father, Leslie Claus was an artist too, often accompanying bedtime stories with illustrations.
Many of his paintings hang on Mary’s walls. “Dad was a watercolourist, basically. I mean he did oils and other things too, but I think watercolour was his first love. I’ve done some of that, but I consider it the most difficult of all the mediums. It’s unforgiving. If you make a mistake you have to live with it. Dad was very delicate in his approach, very meticulous. I’m more slap dash, I’m afraid.”
Accompanied by Piper, she ventured across the driveway to her studio, a converted garage, comfortable even on a blustery winter day. Her latest prints are hanging to dry, taking longer than expected; experiments with new ink she found out about on YouTube. If her approach is slap dash, she is very self-critical after the fact. She critically analyzed each painting, mostly oils of the local landscape so familiar and inspirational to her.
When asked how she thinks her Indigenous culture has influenced her art, her response is matter of fact. “As far as culture, it’s who I am, and what I like to paint are things that have significance to me. I couldn’t do a picture of the Rocky Mountains and care about it. It’s a relationship to the environment, and a respect for it, an appreciation of its strength and history. I’ve found what I’ve painted, I don’t know if it’s the kiss of death or what, but often what I’ve painted gradually disappears, progress comes along and destroys it. I’m kind of desperate to get those things recorded before they’re just buried under our interpretation of progress.” On an easel in the middle of the studio is a painting of a nearby marsh she hopes to soon finish. A sense of urgency creeps into her voice, “I hope it’s not going to soon disappear, too.”
To see these and other artists’ work, Macaulay Heritage Park Museum will host its second annual exhibit and sale, July 19 to August 5. In November, the Quinte Arts Council’s downtown Belleville Gallery will host an Indigenous art exhibit and sale, and the Loyalist College Indigenous Resource Centre will hold its 24th annual Indigenous arts festival.
Visit artistsoftyendinaga.ca for a full gallery.