When I was a child, my grandmother collected calendars of Inuit art. The images were eye catching to me given their often stark, curved lines and minimalist presentation: quite different from the images I was accustomed to seeing my grandmother paint, which included primarily naturalistic prairie scenes and portraits. Jessie Oonark was the artist whose name stood out to me, and I recall in particular an image of an owl created by an Inuit artist, whose name I later learned was Kenojuak Ashevak. How true of the power of art to immortalize: that image has a permanent residence in me. Seeing the work of these brilliant women today takes me right back to moments spent with my grandmother appreciating art. I see the influence of women artists on each other over time. On Marlene Lowden's website Herstory, she allows the work of the great women artists she explores to inspire her own art in her Blind Contour Homage Series.
These women were inspirations to my grandmother as well, who was born and raised in Regina, and would never have had the opportunity to see the work aside from its appearance on calendars. They did not appear in her master artists books, which were composed of deceased artists, almost all of whom were European men. Against this backdrop, the work of the Inuit women artists was compelling, creating a visceral link to hunter gatherer ways, traditional shamanic knowledge, and Indigenous perspectives on the primacy of animals as well as elements – life forms other than human. In Cree, we learn that there are our human ancestors - wahkomâkanak, and then there are all other ancestors that came before humans – âtayohkanak – the wind, the mountains, the Thunderbirds, the little ones, and the animals.
The Inuit art I was introduced to in my grandmother’s home, held deep knowledge of Inuit worldview in each memorable reflection. Seeds of curiosity were planted in me then, through the inextinguishable power of art to reflect distinctive style and immortalize iconography and vision.
In early university, it was the work of Emily Carr that captured my heart and imagination. I was in awe of the rich colours and striking movement of the Old Growth trees that she captured so viscerally. Years later, touring the Vancouver Art Gallery, entering her rooms was like entering into prayer – stopping and being still and silent, as the work communicated with the divine and all we know about what it is to be alive and in reverence for life: a wholly unique signature of the existential questions, captured at a glance. Like Oonark and Ashevak in the originality of their vision, there is only one Emily Carr.
The year I married, we traveled to Mexico to teach English, learn Spanish, live in community, and explore the land and abundant diversity of arts and crafts across the country – each region specializing in traditional crafts based on available natural resources from Zacatecas to Lake Pátzcuaro to Oaxaca. Silver, wood, textiles. We marveled at the striking expertise, the bold and bright patterns and sense of joy exuding from the work, and the kindness of the people we met. I knew of Frieda Kahlo before going to Mexico, and after living there, I had a much clearer sense of her origins, and the ways she made her inimitable mark, characterized by courage and boldness in the face of trauma and social pressure to conform. Frieda Kahlo captures the essence of being fully grounded in her place of origin, while simultaneously existing as larger than life: she herself a contemporary icon.
Similarly, Georgia Okeefe’s life has been immortalized through her work. Her unique outlook was shaped by her time growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later an art career in New York, with a counterpoint life in New Mexico, where her heart and soul guided her to live out her days in communion with the landscape that so shaped her artistic vision. It was as though she held the aesthetic of that landscape before she encountered it in the material world. These women artists transcended the boundaries of fine art to catapult beyond even commercial art to what might be called household art, in their familiarity, popularity and impact.
Vision, perseverance, independence, unceasing communion with their own personal muse and profound relationship with the natural world surrounding them. When Georgia O’Keefe lost her eyesight in her nineties she said, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” From my early appreciation of art calendars, through a love of art appreciation in diverse places, a new chapter is beginning with the opening of the doors of Qaumajug “it is bright, it is lit” at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The light streams through abundant windows and glass, that we might see firsthand an abundant array of the work of Inuit artists, and through virtual means, see that work shared far and wide. A far cry from the art initiation by calendar of my childhood, and yet, seeds will plant where they may, and life waters us.
As Learning and Programs Coordinator at the WAG, artist, art therapist, and WHEAT grad, Colleen Leduc BFA, BED, DWHEAT is developing educational, inclusive, and healing programming for WAG Quamajuq. In her bio we learn, “she is passionate about using art-making as a tool to enhance the accessibility and engagement of art. In her position at WAG Qaumajuq, Colleen teaches virtual art classes to students around the world, mainly in communities throughout Inuit Nunangat. Connecting artwork, be it historic or contemporary, with students from the communities that the artwork was made is meaningful to Colleen. Colleen helped to develop the programs Art to Inspire, Touch Tours, and Prescription Visits. Through her work at the WAG Qaumajuq she finds inspiration from seeing that artists and students have their voices heard through art.”
From the calendars of my childhood to worldwide virtual art accessibility, the spirit of women’s creativity and influence is inspiring, enduring and treasured. And what inspires a creative woman? Often times, other creative women! Join us for 8 sessions beginning Monday April 19th with master teacher, Jungian psychologist, and grandmother of Expressive Arts, Dr. Kate Donohue, to explore the character styles and mythology of four preeminent creative women of our time. See the ways your creativity will be inspired.