By Jennifer Thorpe
The St. Marys Station Gallery was created to showcase unique Canadian art of acclaimed and emerging artists in a unique space. Now in its fourth year at the historic Grand Trunk Railway venue, the Gallery continues to draw international visitors to world class exhibits. And “FIRST NATIONS” is no exception.
Just the second show of the year, “FIRST NATIONS,” is the Gallery’s first-ever presentation of indigenous art. This must-see show which opened Friday, January 10th features the work of three powerful First Nations artists who are all currently living in the London area: Maxine Noel, Annette Sullivan and Penny Christiaans.
Visitors gathered outside the Gallery on opening night and were welcome to participate in a traditional smudging ceremony offered by Patsy Day. Named Katsitsyaw^n (which means ‘Big Flower’) and a member of the Turtle Clan, Oneida Nation of the Haudenosaunee, Patsy shared a traditional smudge of sage, tobacco, cedar and sweet grass. In this atmosphere of mindfulness and respect, Porteous welcomed everyone inside and introduced the artists. Visitors had the opportunity to meet and talk with Annette Sullivan and Penny Christiaans who were both kept busy speaking about the symbolism and meaning of their work.
Annette Sullivan, named Maaskowishiiw fleur, is a Muskrat Métis, St. Clair region, whose work reflects the lives and culture of her indigenous ancestors. Her intricate and exquisite beadwork reflect Métis traditions: the Smoking Cap on exhibit is decorated with the traditional five-petal rose, one of the most distinctive styles of the Métis.
Inspired by Norval Morrisseau and Daphne Odjik, Annette’s energetic and visually stunning paintings are dreamlike visions, brilliant with colour and rich with symbolism. “It’s just beautiful,” said Sylvia Harvey. “I’m just drawn to the image of the ancestor in “Sanctuary.” I see more each time.”
Penny Christiaans, named Kwai Kwai, grew up in the Eastern Quebec townships; her indigenous father was of the Abenaki tribe. Working many years as a therapist in remote indigenous communities across Canada, Penny was inspired by many unknown artists such as Myles Kakegamic, a young blind painter of the Northern Cree Nation.
She began to paint when, a few years ago, a serious illness left her physically limited. Healed now, Penny continues to paint. Using an alcohol pen, Penny uses repurposed tiles (which would otherwise be dumped in landfills), framed with live edge wood. Spare by necessity, her images are powerful in their simplicity.
Included at the Gallery is, “Among White Birch,” a stark, strong statement on MMIWG. Set in a copse of birch, similar to one where several young girls were found, a single red dress hangs on a white cross. The red dress strongly recalls the 2015 REDress installation started in Winnipeg by artist Jaime Black, an installation that went on to over 30 major cities, including the Smithsonian’s “National Museum of The American Indian” in 2019. While some of Penny’s images may make viewers uncomfortable, she feels that part of her work as an indigenous artist is to educate.
Maxine Noel, named Ioyan Mani (“Walks Beyond”), was raised on the Birdtail reservation in Manitoba, and until recently was a long-time Stratford resident. Unable to attend the opening, her spirit was present in her iconic paintings and in the storytelling of friends; tribal artist Jeffrey George came from the Stony & Kettle Point First Nation to honour her with some beautiful flute playing. “I love the piece here called Winter,” he said. “It speaks of this time of year and snow medicine: the snow cleanses the earth, puts things to sleep that need rest.”
Made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2019, Maxine is also a respected teacher, mentor, and social justice advocate. She has worked tirelessly for change through various organizations as well as her art.
“The Spirit Of The Woodland,” which is part of the Gallery’s exhibition, has been printed on infinity shawls to raise funds for diabetic care in remote First Nations communities. “That piece has captivated my attention since I first saw it,” said local artist Bonnie Richardson. “It’s perfectly balanced; it’s symbolic as well. Artists make the first move to bring people together. We want to learn and embrace culture. I’m so grateful for all of this.”
“Not Forgotten,” also part of the exhibit, was created to express the history of indigenous women and girls, their resilience, and the hope of redress and reconciliation. Gifted to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the original is currently on exhibit in the History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History and can be seen in an online virtual tour.
“It’s a great thing for St Marys,” said Alizon Sharun. “I love Maxine’s art. It’s so empowering for women. Those long lines, drawing women to the sky. I’m very impressed with the show.”
Visitors to the St Marys Station Gallery can enjoy “FIRST NATIONS” until February 22nd. Find out more information about the exhibit and the artists online at stmarysstationgallery.ca