BCD#37

Blind Contour Drawing #37 “Wolfman” Kitty Smith

After several interviews with Kitty Smith, author Julie Cruikshank realized that the best way to connect with Smith was through stories. “To a large extent,” Cruishank observes, Smith’s “evaluation of other people … is based on their storytelling abilities.”

Storytelling is inseparable from Smith’s life and livelihood. She understands her own personal history as intertwined with the history of her communities and the cultural origin stories—tales of wolves, crows, women, and children—that nourished her upbringing. Spoken in her first languages of Tlingit and Athapaskan (Tagish) and—later—in English, these narratives are Smith’s method of talking about people and places.

Born in 1890 near the mouth of the Yukon’s Alsek River, the early years of Smith’s life were dramatically impacted by the Klondike gold rush, which peaked between 1896 and 1898. Her mother’s brother, along with three other Tlingit men, was accused of shooting a white prospector. Smith explains the shooting itself as customary revenge for the poisoning of two Tlingit men by prospectors, but the punishment on her uncle was severe: all four men were tried for murder; her uncle and another man were executed, while the other two died in hospital. Smith’s mother travelled to Marsh Lake, the home of her own mother’s family, rocked by shock and grief. While there, she died of an influenza epidemic.

Left without a mother, Smith was largely raised by her father’s family, who taught Smith to be a skilled trapper as they travelled along Yukon rivers. Raised to a high status through a potlatch ceremony, a strong marriage was secured for her once she finished a lengthy seclusion through puberty. However, Smith was dissatisfied with the marriage; her husband, she claims, was unfaithful and unskilled. She made the decision—shocking for the time—to leave him and to live with her mother’s family, a “Crow” family, according to Tlingit kinship affiliations. Here, she developed close bonds with her grandmother, who eventually secured a better marriage with Billy Smith. The couple had six children, to whom they taught hunting, trapping, fishing, sewing, and other skills.

But Smith never relied on her husband as a means of support. At a time when women were neither primary breadwinners nor carvers, Smith was both, and she was fiercely independent. In the 1930s, she realized how much Canadian soldiers would pay for winter gear, so she used muskrat skins to sew mitts and mukluks. She also began carving small poplar totems of the animals that populated the stories she grew up with. Her husband would sometimes write short pieces to accompany the figures, such as “The Wolf Man,” which she affixed to the bottom of her Wolf Man carving. Later, she published a book of stories, entitled Nindal Kwädindür / I’m Going to Tell You a Story. The collection is as much homage to her reverence for narrative as are her carvings.

Smith died in 1989. At that time, she was one of the last people to remember the impact of the gold rush and the construction of the Alaskan highway on Tlingit and Athapascan people. But although her early life bore the ruptures brought by western economic and environmental intrusions, she remained steadfastly devoted to and defined by the stories and relationships of the multigenerational lines of her family.

 

Born: 1890, Yukon
Died: 1989

Sources:

 

Cruikshank, Julie. Life Lived Like a Story. U of British Columbia P, 1990.

 

“How People Got Fire: Study Guide.” National Film Board of Canada. http://lss.yukonschools.ca/uploads/4/5/5/0/45508033/hpgf_guide.pdf

 

Kwanlin Dün First Nation. Listen to the Stories: A History of the Kwanlin Dün People. A Kwanlin Dün First Nation Publication, 2013.

 

Tukker, Paul. “Flea Market Find Inspires New First Nations Art Exhibition in Yukon.” CBC News, 14 May 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/kitty-smith-carving-flea-market-exhibition-whitehorse-1.4113543

 

BCD #32

Blind Contour Drawing #32 “Mother Earth Struggles for Survival” 1975
Daphne Odjig

If ever an artist felt grateful for an illness, it was Daphne Odjig. In 1932, at the age of 13, Odjig was hit by rheumatic fever and forced to withdraw from school, dashing her ambitions of becoming a schoolteacher. However, her disappointment quickly gave way to delight; living at home on Manitoulin Island’s Wikwemikong Reserve gave her an opportunity to grow close to her paternal grandfather, an Odawa-Potawatomi stone-carver, and her mother, and Englishwoman who had met Odjig’s father when he was based in England during World War I. Odjig’s adolescence was nourished by her connections with her parents and grandfather, each of whom encouraged Odjig’s creative interests.

 

But Odjig’s grandfather and mother died when she was just 18, and she set out for other parts of Ontario, moving to Toronto during World War II. It was in early adulthood that Odjig first encountered racism, and the shock triggered a withdrawal from her heritage. She spent her years in Toronto visiting art galleries, exploring European paintings and admiring the Cubist styles of painters like Picasso. But she gave herself the last name “Fisher” (an Odawa translation of “Odjig”) and felt, for the first time in her life, isolated.

 

The retreat from her indigenous origins did not last long. After marrying her first husband, Paul Somerville, and moving to British Columbia to raise their two sons, she enrolled in art classes, where she was encouraged to paint “realistic” pieces. While she briefly followed this advice, she soon decided that she wanted to paint how she felt, a decision that catapulted her towards innovative new styles.

 

In 1962, Odjig married her second husband—two years after Paul died in a car crash—and after they relocated to Winnipeg, a new phase in her artistic production and motivation began. Over the next two decades, Odjig’s style grew to amalgamate her First Nations spiritual heritage with the modernist techniques she had admired years before. Her pluralist approach and two-dimensional representations of indigenous mythology, colonial history, and personal and collective memories relied on vibrant colours and a dark “formline” that anchored the works’ meaning in place. On her formline, Odjig remarked: “If you looked at my painting before I got my formline on, you probably wouldn’t distinguish what I’m doing. But by the time I got my formline on, everything is in balance, and it’s there.”

 

Odjig’s art punctured the boundaries separating First Nations art and a broader Western audience. Picasso called her a “remarkable artist,” and she was awarded with every accolade available to artists, including the Order of Canada. She was one of four artists in the world chosen to paint a memorial to Picasso by the Picasso Museum in France, and her pieces have been featured on Canada stamps.

 

Yet, to Odjig, true success was achieved by her activism, which operated as an extension of her role as an artist. In 1974, after serving a six-month artist residency in Gotland, Sweden, she and her husband returned to Winnipeg to open Odjig Indian Prints of Canada, a craft shop and small press that eventually morphed into the New Warehouse Gallery, the first Canadian gallery to exclusively represent First Nations art.

 

As curator, Odjig encouraged young artists by buying and selling their work. She organized the Professional Native Indian Artists Association, more famously known as the “Indian Group of Seven,” and illustrated a range of books, from school readers to a collection of First Nations erotica. Before her breakthroughs, the mainstream art world saw indigenous art as “exotic handicraft or cultural artefact more properly housed in a museum than in a public gallery.” But Odjig’s collaborative intervention with other First Nations artists changed the field of possibilities. “We acknowledged and supported each other as artists when the world of fine art refused us entry,” she explained. “Together we broke down barriers that would have been so much more difficult faced alone.”

 

Perhaps Odjig’s journey as an artist and activist is best captured by Roots, her triptych about the disintegration of identity that occurs as a result of abandoning heritage, and the potential for regrowth upon rediscovering those lost origins. “You find out who you are and are proud. … Only when you discover yourself can you be secure.”

Born: September 11,1919, Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island Ontario
Died: 2016, Kelowna

Sources:

 

“Daphne Odjig.” NativeOnline. http://www.nativeonline.com/daphne_odjig.htm

 

Devine, Bonnie. “Daphne Odjig: 1919 – 2016.” Canadianart, 6 October 2016. https://canadianart.ca/features/daphne-odjig-1919-2016/

 

Fernandes, Andrea. “The Grandmother of Canadian Native Art: Daphne Odjig.” Mental Floss, 28 June 2009. http://mentalfloss.com/article/22099/grandmother-canadian-native-art-daphne-odjig

 

Lahey, Anita. “Odjig’s Lyrical Line.” Vernissage, Fall 2007 (excerpt). https://www.gallery.ca/sites/default/files/documents/news/Biography_Daphne_Odjig.pdf

 

Nathoo, Zulekha. “‘Indian Group of Seven’ Artist Daphne Odjig Dead at 97.” CBC News, 2 October 2016. https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/daphne-odjig-dead-1.3788123