First Nation educator leaps into her ambition with year-long artist residency

Monday, September 11th, 2023 12:30pm


Image Caption

Amber Smith-Quail stands in front of one of her artworks titled "Land Back" on display in her first solo exhibit running until Sept. 26 at Dignam Gallery in Toronto.


“I’m so grateful that I finally get to do this. I waited a long time.” —artist Amber Smith-Quail
By Sam Laskaris
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A leap of faith a year ago has paid off for Amber Smith-Quail.

A member of Alderville First Nation in Ontario, Smith-Quail decided to take a leave of absence from her job as an educator with the Toronto District School Board to accept an offer to become artist in residence for the Women’s Art Association of Canada.

The Toronto-based association, founded in 1887, is the longest-running art association in the country.

“This year has been fast, but also slow,” Smith-Quail said of her residency, which will be complete at the end of this month.

“It’s been a year of professional and personal growth. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got here. I just knew that I wanted it.”

Smith-Quail’s efforts this past year are culminating with her first solo exhibit, titled Nawemaa/To be related.

Media were given a preview of her work on Sept. 7 at the Dignam Gallery, located inside the Women’s Art Association of Canada at 23 Prince Arthur Avenue, Toronto. That was followed by a public opening reception on Sept. 9. The exhibit will run at Dignam Gallery until Sept. 26.

Nawemaa/To be related includes paintings, mixed-media pieces and beadwork.

Smith-Quail admits she had moments of doubt while pursuing her artistic career over the past year.

“This was a huge undertaking, taking a leave from education, taking a year from salary and pouring myself into this,” she said. “You do have moments of doubt when you do things like this, and you do get scared. And my friends always came back with supportive words and encouragement.”

By overcoming her fear, though, Smith-Quail fulfilled a life-long ambition.

“When I was little in Kindergarten, when we wrote what are you going to be when you grow up, I wrote I’m an artist,” she said. “Like, I AM an artist. So, I’m so grateful that I finally get to do this. I waited a long time.”

Now that a new school year has begun, Smith-Quail has chosen not to head back into the classroom just yet. She will continue to work as an artist.

“I’m going to continue on this path for a little bit longer,” she said. “I have a very supportive partner who really believes in me and my work and tells me what I’m doing is important.”

Though, eventually, Smith-Quail would like to return to teaching.

“I would like to move back into education,” she said. “But I’d like to move back into education in the arts. I really do feel that art is medicine. And when I was privileged to work with children, I found that often sitting at our desks with our heads down doing our work was really not the way to do it. Sometimes people need to work with our hands. Sometimes they needed to work with their imagination.”

As for her own work, Smith-Quail explained the title of her exhibit.

“I think about how we are all related,” she said. “I think about how every action has a consequence, a good one or a negative one sometimes. And how we’ve forgotten to take care of one another and how we’ve forgotten to take care of our land and our water and the other beings around us.

“I think about how the removal of Indigenous peoples and our relatives, the moving of water in ways that it should never be moved, it’s all related. It all comes back to colonial violence. It’s all about the taking of the land.”

A wire serves as a clothes line with red paper cut-outs of pants, shirts and dresses hang along it.  At the end is a black silhouette of a wolf lunging with a red dress in its mouth.
Amber Smith-Quail's work entitled "The Thief" is on display at the Dignam Gallery. The solo exhibit is titled Nawemaa/To be related.

Smith-Quail also explained the largest piece of art in her exhibit. It features red clothing, all made of paper, displayed on a wire. This piece includes a wolf with a red dress in its mouth.

“I don’t know if it is a favourite, but it felt really rewarding to finally get The Thief finished,” Smith-Quail said.

“It’s about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. We have a story in my family. So, I grew up with a missing auntie (Valerie). I grew up with the grief and the longing and the wondering of what happened.”

Smith-Quail has been told about the last time her relative was seen by family members.

“The story about the last time my auntie saw Valerie was when she came to their house in distress, and I guess she wasn’t properly clothed. And my aunties gave her a dress and one of their coats and she fled. She fled and it was snowing, and my aunties said after she fled, not long after that, her boyfriend came and he was looking for her.

“They could see her footprints in the snow being covered by the falling snow. And they were hoping that she would get away. And I guess she didn’t. And nobody saw her again.”

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.