By Shari Narine
Sweetgrass Contributing Editor
June 29, 2016.
Carrying On is an appropriate name for the Alberta Craft Council Discovery Gallery’s newest exhibit.
“Obviously it’s about carrying devices, but the more important aspect of it is that these are all people who are actually carrying on their own traditions as well their own creative practises,” said Tom McFall, executive director of the Alberta Craft Council.
The exhibit, which opened June 18 in Edmonton, showcases the work of Blackfoot, Cree and Metis artisans and focuses on carriers and containers.
“It’s not kind of an anthropological survey of something at its end. It’s an artistic survey of something that’s going into a new creative phase,” said McFall.
For three students - Jamie John-Kehewin, Morgwn Martine, and Amber Weasel Head - and one former student – now instructor Ruby Sweetman - from Portage College’s Native Arts and Culture Program, it showcases the level of skill and the in-depth work that has been learned at the college.
“It highlights the traditional authenticity of what we do. We don’t purchase hides, we don’t purchase furs, we don’t purchase porcupine quills or fish scales or any of that stuff. We harvest it all,” said Donna Feledichuk, associate dean with the program.
The students learned to tan hides in the traditional method and harvest quills from porcupines. They also learned which willow, birch and spruce trees to collect bark from.
“It’s not just about the art. It’s also about maintaining the culture and traditions and why they’re done a certain way, why they’re preserved a certain way,” said Feledichuk. She notes that some students come in with beadwork and sewing skills, but little else.
While the Native Arts and Culture Program has been running since the inception of the college in Lac La Biche, it has moved in a different direction recently. The one year Native Arts certificate can now lead into a two-year diploma that focuses on the business-end of being an artisan. There are presently 12 students enrolled in the combined program.
In fact, it was this entrepreneurial focus that tuned the college into ACC’s plans for the Carrying On exhibit.
Feledichuk says students were taking a tour of the ACC galleries, to get ideas on how to display their own work, when they learned about the potential exhibit.
“This gallery … is the first step toward getting exposure, putting themselves out there, having to talk to people that may be interested in purchasing work from them in the future. (It’s) all the things they need to learn if they want to be successful artists,” said Feledichuk.
McFall says ACC has become more deliberate in its approach to Aboriginal artists, in part due to the influence of the Edmonton Arts Council.
“(EAC led) large public conversations about generally how any of us can do more for Aboriginal artists… how we can invite more activity into the mainstream cultural stream,” he said.
In October, ACC is hosting the Canadian Crafts Federation’s annual conference in Calgary. McFall says he hopes to have Carrying On exhibited there. It’s a perfect fit, he says, as the themes of the conference are being more inclusive of diversity, and relationships between the craft councils and educational institutions.
McFall adds that ACC will also be working with Aboriginal artists beyond showing their work to help them develop their careers and market their pieces.
McFall anticipates that more and more of ACC’s 15-20 annual exhibits will have an Indigenous focus.
Carrying On, which also features work by Melissa-Jo Belcourt Moses, Albertine Crow Shoe, Sharon Rose Kootenay, Kathleen McIntyre, and Ben Moses, runs through until July 23 at the Alberta Craft Council Discovery Gallery in downtown Edmonton.