Red Deer-raised artist Joane Cardinal-Schubert began depicting symbols of her aboriginal heritage at a time when native artwork was experiencing a sort of rebirth in Canada.
The Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo ‘67 in Montreal drew much mainstream fascination — yet many still considered the drawings, paintings and sculptures on display to be craft rather than art.
Cardinal-Schubert, the sister of renowned architect Douglas Cardinal, spent much of her life challenging this notion through her creation of thoughtful multi-media pieces that addressed themes of race, history and politics through a window of personal experience.
A career perspective of the Central Alberta artist, who died at age 67 of cancer in 2009, can be seen at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery. In the exhibit, viewers can discern Cardinal-Schubert’s sense of social justice and desire to speak up for those who are marginalized in society, said Kim Verrier, the museum’s co-ordinator of visitor experience.
Her art sought to reclaim First Nations stereotypes and highlight the “power, sophistication and beauty of aboriginal culture.”
There was a truth and authenticity about the way she depicted petroglyph horses, Sundance posts and buffalo-skin warshirts because her works were clearly rooted in her own view of the world.
“I see myself as a keeper of my culture,” wrote Cardinal-Schubert, whose paintings and prints are in private and pubic collections across the country, including the National Gallery of Canada.
“(My work) is about who I am. I paint about the processes I go through in life. Otherwise I can’t paint.”
The artist’s concern for the treatment of First Nations people was often expressed through provocative subject matter.
For instance, in her large painting on paper Convent Series: I Did Not Have Dolls Like These, Cardinal-Schubert colourfully portrays the traditional leather and beadwork dolls that aboriginal children might have played with before being sent to residential schools.
“She really draws you in with her imagery,” said Verrier, pointing out the politically charged work, Crowfoot & Victoria, Crown of Thorns.
It features charcoal portraits of Queen Victoria and Chief Crowfoot, the signatory of Treaty 7 on behalf of the Blackfoot Nation.
Both heads are bound together by a single spiky circlet, symbolizing the thorny relationship that exists between the Crown and aboriginal people.
Her watercolour Last of the One Thousand depicts an emaciated buffalo, ribs painfully exposed. Text inside the painting reads: “with apologies to Charles Russell” — the American artist who painted idealized images of the old West, including buffalo hunts.
Cardinal-Schubert’s self-portrait, done as a wood-block print, features the irregular rectangular border of a postage stamp and several maple leafs — another reoccurring symbol in her work.
There are also often religious or spiritual undertones — either overt, as in the abstract piece God Blessed the Seventh Day, or subliminal, as in Night Blanket: Blue Series — a powerfully serene depiction of a twilight sky over a silhouette of mountains.
Verrier believes the strength of Cardinal-Schubert’s art often lies in its simplicity. Her print on paper Alberta Landscape depicts exactly what the title implies — all the artist used is a block of red plaid, representing a farmer’s shirt, the tan shape of a working man’s hat, and a grey-blue expanse, portraying both sky and the metallic windmills that used to run farm water pumps.
Cardinal-Schubert tells her own life story in a short video that runs along with the exhibit. She spoke of being born in the Crowsnest Pass in 1942 to a father from the Kainai Nation, (or Blood Tribe) and a mother of German descent.
Her parents moved to Red Deer to give their eight children a better future, and for some years owned and ran a four-star motel at Gaetz Avenue and 34th Street.
While always creative as a child, Cardinal-Schubert recalled it took her father’s influence to get her into art school. She remembered her dad promising her a trip to the mountains, but instead pulling up in front of the Calgary registrar’s office of the Alberta College of Art and Design in 1962.
She finished that three-year program, and later also graduated with a bachelor degree in fine arts after attending the Universities of Alberta and Calgary.
The artist wrote about consciously changing her style after being told she painted like Gauguin as a student. “I wanted to do something that was mine . . . I started thinking about who I and my family were. I am the total of all the learning that’s been passed down to me from generation to generation . . .”
Her goal was to speak to viewers in images: “Words are just not suitable tools to explain vision, but I would say that I am trying to capture moments seen and remembered by myself and the viewer . . . when time seems to stand still and certain circumstances gel in the mind . . .”
The travelling exhibit of Cardinal-Schubert’s works from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts continues to show at the Red Deer museum until June 18.