Connections to ancestors and the spirit world imbue the captivating Dreaming With My Great Mother art exhibit at Lacombe’s Memorial Centre.
Bold and symbolic images of plants, animal spirits and ceremonies were created by three female indigenous artists — Camille Louis, from Maskwacis, Heather Shillinglaw of Daysland, and Carla Rae Taylor of Yellowknife, N.W.T.
“We are each on a journey of seeking and receiving knowledge from our Grandmothers,” the artists write in their joint statement. “At times they come to us in dreams, giving us direction. For this we are grateful. We search for ways of honouring the knowledge of past generations” through art.
The most naturalistic, yet ethereal, works in the Alberta Foundation for the Arts travelling exhibition were rendered by Louis, a Cree member of the Montana Band, who was raised on a Ponoka-area ranch.
The 28-year-old graduate of the University of Alberta’s Fine Arts program was inspired to paint visual narratives by dreams and traditions “Much of the artwork I have done is a reflection of my search for what it means to be an aboriginal woman,” said Louis.
In Wapiskikihew Iskwewak (White Eagle Women), two large eagles soar above two sitting females. Louis explained this work was inspired by a couple of ceremonies. In one, the sister she is closest to was given the Cree name of White Eagle Woman by an Elder. A year later, in another ceremony performed at a different location, Louis was given the same Cree name by another Elder — who didn’t know her sister had also been so titled.
Louis feels it’s telling that she now shares a name with her kindred-spirit sibling.
In another painting, Mastakasa ekwa Pihko (Hair and Ashes), a female is seen bending over a fire. Louis said the figure is burning hair that fell from her scalp during brushing. “Hair is important to First Nations people. We are told to grow it long and that it’s a reflection of character.”
Louis and her sister once burned their collected hair at the top of a mountain near Nordegg. Since part of a person’s spirit is said to remain in hair even after it leaves the body, Louis said, “I keep it in a safe place until I can burn it.” The ritual is one of renewal, of “starting fresh.”
Water is another important element — especially in relation to women. Females are considered water carriers, because they bear life in a fluid womb, said Louis. Although her oil painting Samina Nipiy (Touching the Water) bears a resemblance to European artworks of Narcissus observing his own reflection, her painting relates to connection and gratitude.
Louis, now an Edmonton resident, grew up in an artistic family, included her painter father and creative siblings. While her artwork has been compared to that of Saskatchewan First Nations painter Allen Sapp, she said she looked more to the works of Alex Janvier, Rebecca Belmore and Lana Whiskey Jack.
Other art in the Dreaming With My Great Mother exhibit is more graphic and symbolic — particularly Taylor’s series of six acrylic and spray-paint works that explore indigenous teachings, through imagery from dreams and legends.
Taylor, a Dene artist with a fine arts degree from the University of Victoria, grapples with the destructive legacy of residential schools: “Many of us have been disconnected, left without Elders to teach us the traditional ways, but when we quiet our minds and connect deeply with nature, we can hear the whispers in the wind, the knowledge in our hearts.”
Nature is the focus of Shillinglaw’s mixed-media works Sweetgrass Sway (Miyahkasikewahchi) and Woodland Rose (Sakaw Okiniwaktik). The Cree and Dene artist, who graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design, is the descendant of a medicine woman.
She said she creates art to tell the story of how wildflowers and herbs help people heal and form a connection to Mother Earth.
The art exhibit continues in Lacombe until Feb. 24.