Draw­ing away the pain, the ter­ror

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Ali­son Mayes

ROBERT Houle is an in­ter­na­tion­ally dis­tin­guished artist with works in the Na­tional Gallery of Canada and the Win­nipeg Art Gallery.

But it took 50 years be­fore a trans­for­ma­tive process of art-mak­ing al­lowed him to re­mem­ber and re­lease a long-buried trauma.

In 2009, af­ter at­tend­ing a funeral on his home re­serve — Man­i­toba’s Sandy Bay First Na­tion — the Anishn­abe Saulteaux artist re­turned to his Toronto home deeply trou­bled. He de­cided to try to un­lock feel­ings of shame that had been gnaw­ing at him for a decade.

In an in­tense one-month process, Houle poured out 24 oil­stick draw­ings while speak­ing to him­self in his Anishn­abe mother tongue. They grad­u­ally, in­tu­itively re­vealed to him, through sen­sa­tions in his body rather than his mind, the truth he had blocked out: He had been phys­i­cally and sex­u­ally abused by Catholic priests as a boy at Sandy Bay In­dian Res­i­den­tial School.

“I re­lived it,” re­calls the soft-spo­ken Houle, 65. “They start out by beat­ing you up (be­fore a sex­ual as­sault).... I had been an­gry for all those years.... Af­ter a month, I was a bas­ket case. Then I wanted to ex­press some­thing pos­i­tive — that I’ve sur­vived.”

Houle has never shown the haunt­ing draw­ings and the colourful, cel­e­bra­tory ab­stract paint­ings he did as a fol­low-up, un­til now. The just-opened solo ex­hi­bi­tion Robert Houle: enuhmo andúhyaun (the road home) launches a se­ries of shows by ac­com­plished alumni and for­mer fac­ulty mem­bers to be held at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba’s new School of Art Gallery.

Houle, a 1972 U of M grad­u­ate in art his­tory, says it means a great deal that he is mak­ing the works pub­lic for the first time in his home prov­ince. His 12 sur­viv­ing sib­lings (he is the el­dest of 15 chil­dren) were all expected to at­tend the open­ing.

He has ded­i­cated the show to his de­ceased mother, also a res­i­den­tial school sur­vivor, who was never able to tell her story.

In the draw­ings, which have pen­cilled cap­tions such as “night preda­tor” and “I’m cor­nered,” Chris­tian crosses and small iron beds re­cur. The pious abusers are dark, face­less, blurry forms, of­ten with ex­ag­ger­ated hands. One pri­est op­er­ated a candy store in the church base­ment and would paw at the boys when they bought treats.

The last draw­ing refers to a pri­est Houle adored, who taught him to swim. Just re­cently, in yet an­other be­trayal, he learned from other sur­vivors that this leader was also a preda­tor.

The gen­tle grey-haired artist doesn’t want the “guilt money” of­fered in com­pen­sa­tion to res­i­den­tial school sur­vivors. “The bot­tom line is there’s no price to my suf­fer­ing,” he says.

He has also cho­sen not to par­tic­i­pate in the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion, the of­fi­cial col­lec­tor of tes­ti­mony about the hor­rors of abuse. The TRC is based, he says, on “an im­posed Judeo-Chris­tian con­cept of for­give­ness.”

The Anishn­abe term he finds mean­ing­ful is “page­de­naun.” Writ­ten on one of the paint­ings, it roughly trans­lates as “let it go from your mind.”

As Toronto cu­ra­tor David McIntosh writes in the brochure that ac­com- U of M’s School of Art Gallery To Oct. 12 Ad­mis­sion free pa­nies the show, “Page­de­naun is a self-defin­ing and self-de­ter­min­ing act, while for­give­ness is an act of sub­mis­sion to the will of oth­ers.”

Houle says he has let go of the pain, vic­tim­iza­tion and dark mem­o­ries. Mak­ing the draw­ings, he says, “was a form of de-col­o­niz­ing my­self.” He is at peace and wants to cel­e­brate mov­ing for­ward.

“I’m much stronger now,” he says. “I used to hate be­ing an artist, be­cause artists feel so many things. They’re so sen­si­tive. But some­thing good comes out of it.”

Houle (be­low, left) cre­ated 24 cathar­tic Sandy Bay Res­i­den­tial School Se­ries works in a month, in­clud­ing pre­tend­ing to pray (left).

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