A spir­i­tual search leads to art and seren­ity for In­dige­nous painter Jessie Buchanan


A spir­i­tual search leads to art and seren­ity for In­dige­nous painter Jessie Buchanan

Sit­ting in a kayak on the Churchill River, In­dige­nous artist Jessie Buchanan can’t take her eyes off the bel­uga whales skim­ming the wa­ter nearby. “You guys are beau­ti­ful,” she calls gen­tly. It’s a peace­ful mo­ment, cap­tured on her cell­phone dur­ing a stop in Churchill, Man­i­toba, where she was lead­ing art work­shops in a mo­bile art gallery – a souped-up ship­ping con­tainer – as part of Win­nipeg Art Gallery’s cel­e­bra­tion of Canada’s 150th birth­day.

But bet­ter than any video footage, al­most bet­ter than the mem­ory it­self, will be Buchanan’s oil paint­ing of a whale serenely swim­ming be­neath her kayak that she’ll later cre­ate at home in Guelph.

On a fall day in her base­ment stu­dio, Buchanan is ap­ply­ing the fi­nal brush strokes to the large whale paint­ing, called “Meet­ing Qi­lalu­gaq, Churchill River.” She’s

wear­ing a green shirt and capri pants that are as paint-splat­tered as the con­crete floor.

“I go to the gro­cery store in my ‘uni­form,’ ” she says. “Peo­ple stop me. They’re in­ter­ested. They say, ‘Are you a painter?’ ”

On the walls in an ad­join­ing room, sev­eral large, evoca­tive, oil and acrylic paint­ings ex­press her spirituality and in­flu­ences – Lake Su­pe­rior, Al­go­nquin Park, the Wood­land style of paint­ing, Bri­tish Columbia artist Emily Carr and Yukon-based artist Nathalie Par­enteau to name a few.

“I try to come up with my own vis­ual ex­pres­sion rid­ing on the shoul­ders of these gi­ants,” she says.

One of her paint­ings shows a man ca­noe­ing peace­fully into a hori­zon of blues and white. She painted the scene af­ter her fa­ther-in-law died.

“I have a spir­i­tual be­lief that is con­nected to my an­ces­tors,” she says. “The el­ders talk about the other side. There is com­fort. The spir­i­tual search is what in many ways drives my work; that search­ing for that com­fort in what’s to come, and faith.”

Buchanan, 34, a mem­ber of the Aamji­w­naang First Na­tion, chose “Voice of the Land­scape” as her theme for the Canada 150 jour­ney. Her mother is Ojibwe. Her fa­ther has an Ir­ish-Scot­tish back­ground. Her par­ents met in Toronto and moved to Cale­do­nia where Buchanan and her sib­lings grew up.

The sum­mer project, called “Art Ex­press’d” acted like a light­ning bolt that fired up Buchanan’s creativ­ity for a new se­ries of paint­ings based on her ex­pe­ri­ences as a painter-guide this sum­mer in North­ern Canada.

“I want to be able to reach more peo­ple and show the beauty of North­ern Canada,” she says. “I feel like I’m full of im­ages and ex­pe­ri­ences that I just re­ally want to, need to, get out on can­vas.”

From June to Au­gust, Buchanan met a large trans­port truck haul­ing the brightly painted, six-me­tre-long ship­ping con­tainer

when it made stops in Yel­lowknife and Inu­vik in North­west Ter­ri­to­ries; White­horse, Yukon; Churchill in north­ern Man­i­toba; and Baker Lake, Nu­navut.

At each com­mu­nity, truck driver Kevin Ma­jor un­hitched the trailer and laid down a ramp so that Buchanan could in­vite peo­ple to climb in­side the mo­bile gallery­work­shop to paint their vi­sion of Canada.

“It felt like be­ing in an art cir­cus in the best pos­si­ble sense,” she says.

Buchanan, 34, a friendly, ex­pres­sive woman with lively, brown eyes and long, dark hair, was one of three artists cho­sen by the Win­nipeg Art Gallery to ac­com­pany the mod­i­fied ship­ping con­tain­ers to 16 com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try.

Af­ter their cross-coun­try tours, the mo­bile art gal­leries were dropped off in Win­nipeg where Cana­di­ans’ art­work was dis­played at Nuit Blanche fes­tiv­i­ties.

Buchanan alone col­lected more than 200 small paint­ings, draw­ings and pieces of bead work.

She flew to most places, but rode in the truck along the Demp­ster High­way, which be­gins east of Daw­son city in the Yukon and ends in Inu­vik in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, so she wouldn’t miss the stun­ning wilder­ness scenery.

Buchanan knew that many In­dige­nous peo­ple viewed Canada’s 150th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions as hyp­o­crit­i­cal given that col­o­niza­tion was the be­gin­ning of the in­jus­tices and abuse they suf­fered. There is frus­tra­tion with the slow progress that has been made on rec­om­men­da­tions from the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion set up to try to ad­dress abuse in res­i­den­tial schools.

She wres­tled with whether she should take part in the pro­gram. In the end, Buchanan, who is also a qual­i­fied pro­fes­sional art ther­a­pist, de­cided that art can serve to help peo­ple protest. It can heal, ad­vo­cate and

rec­on­cile, she says.

“Re­porters have been ask­ing me about this, and I’ve been say­ing there is a place I be­lieve for both voices. It is im­por­tant to protest and boy­cott,” Buchanan says. “It is also im­por­tant to use it as an op­por­tu­nity to en­gage with the com­mu­nity, not only In­dige­nous peo­ples, but all com­mu­ni­ties.

“I went with an open heart and an open mind.”

A mix of In­dige­nous and non-In­dige­nous peo­ple agreed to make art in the ship­ping con­tainer gallery equipped with lights, heat­ing, hard­wood floors and art sup­plies. Most of their works con­veyed joy in the land­scape and tra­di­tional ways of life, such as the im­age of a fish­ing camp on the Arc­tic Ocean. Many im­mi­grants in­cor­po­rated the Cana­dian flag in their paint­ings.

But some In­dige­nous painters ex­pressed their pain about how the land and their peo­ple had been trau­ma­tized by col­o­niza­tion. Many el­ders were con­cerned about the loss of their lan­guages.

One woman crit­i­cized the spend­ing of money on the project while “the com­mu­nity was hurt­ing.” Buchanan hoped she would in­cor­po­rate her feel­ings into a paint­ing.

She says peo­ple were sur­prised that she was so open about “the ele­phant in the room.”

“I was so en­er­gized about us­ing art as a way to help their so­cial ac­tivism and ad­vo­cacy.”

In White­horse, an In­dige­nous woman painted a scene show­ing how land claims had splin­tered her com­mu­nity.

“She painted a map of the Yukon and showed how split up and bro­ken up the land had be­come. She ed­u­cated me about how badly the land claims have ripped apart the Yukon. There were lines ev­ery­where and lit­tle pieces of land.”

A Parks Canada em­ployee painted a moun­tain in a na­tional park west of Nu­navut and called it “Dis­con­nect 150” to il­lus­trate our need to dis­con­nect from

tech­nol­ogy and re­con­nect with na­ture.

Buchanan vis­ited li­braries, schools and com­mu­nity cen­tres to in­vite res­i­dents to at­tend her work­shops.

“I was out al­most ev­ery night meet­ing peo­ple,” she says. “It opened my eyes. Ev­ery­one needs to go to North­ern Canada to re­ally un­der­stand what the peo­ple are like there.”

In the main­stream press, you read mostly about poverty and strug­gle, she says.

“But when I was there, I saw this whole other side – the re­ten­tion of cul­ture and strength and sus­tain­abil­ity, the tight-knit com­mu­ni­ties. It broke my stereo­types. I ad­mired the way they lived their lives.”

And then there’s the raw beauty of the land­scape. In a boat on the Macken­zie River in the mid­dle of the night with the sun high in the sky, she felt the “beau­ti­ful and bizarre” fea­tures of na­ture.

“They’re more con­nected in the North to the Earth and the nat­u­ral rhythms than we are in the South,” she says.

In a teepee in Inu­vik, Buchanan and Ma­jor talked for hours with a young Inu­vialuit carver and healer from Tuktoyaktuk who fed them goose and cari­bou.

“We all have mo­ments where we feel sort of touched by great­ness in a spir­i­tual way,” Buchanan says. “He was talk­ing about his tra­di­tions and peo­ple . . . and I felt proud and so much com­fort and clar­ity about our place in the world.”

Art and an­ces­try came to­gether when Buchanan trav­elled eight hours north of her home to Al­goma Univer­sity in Sault Ste. Marie.

Along with her fine arts de­gree, she took na­tive stud­ies cour­ses at Shing­wauk Ki­noomaage Gamig, a sis­ter in­sti­tu­tion that pro­vides ed­u­ca­tion from an Anishi­naabe world view.

“I think my iden­tity cri­sis with be­ing

an abo­rig­i­nal woman was con­nected to my iden­tity cri­sis as an artist,” Buchanan says. “I felt I should have brown skin and be from a re­serve. I hadn’t yet seen the di­ver­sity in the com­mu­nity un­til Al­goma.”

Her mother, proud of her Ojibwe an­ces­try, took her fam­ily to pow-wows where they could ex­pe­ri­ence their cul­ture and hear the lan­guage, but they never lived on their re­serve out­side Sar­nia. “It’s in­ter­est­ing be­long­ing to a place where you’ve never lived,” she says.

Buchanan didn’t have an op­por­tu­nity to learn the Anishi­naabe lan­guage, which she wants to do. She was raised in the Catholic church, her fa­ther’s church.

Though she has “sta­tus In­dian” des­ig­na­tion, she doesn’t “look” like an In­dige­nous per­son, she says. “It made me hes­i­tant about em­brac­ing my blood.” Later, she came to re­al­ize there are many peo­ple like her. “We don’t all look the same or speak the same.”

She ad­mires her 97-year-old ma­ter­nal grand­mother, a painter of im­pres­sion­is­tic land­scapes. When Buchanan was 13 years old, she saw an im­age in a magazine of an In­dige­nous man proudly hold­ing up a fist full of paint brushes in front of him.

“It re­ally res­onated with me. It felt like some­thing stirred.”

In Sault Ste. Marie, in­struc­tors such as Ed­ward Ben­ton-Banai, pre­sid­ing Grand Chief of the Three Fires Midewi­win Lodge, helped her fig­ure out who she is. She was able to cope with the de­pres­sion that had dogged her in her late teens.

“I got a han­dle on it in univer­sity be­cause I was start­ing to em­brace who I re­ally was and not be afraid of what peo­ple think. “

She met her fu­ture hus­band, An­drew Mun­caster, a mu­si­cian-song­writer and mem­ber of the band, the Gra­nola Peo­ple. At the time, Mun­caster was work­ing on his PhD in re­li­gious stud­ies at McMaster Univer­sity in Hamilton and teach­ing part time at Al­goma.

“It was in­stant fire­works, the mu­sic

and him.”

Mun­caster took her 45 min­utes north to see Lake Su­pe­rior. She loves the un­pre­dictabil­ity of the largest of the Great Lakes; its wild­ness and its seren­ity. She has re­turned many times with her fam­ily and has ex­pe­ri­enced the lake’s con­trari­ness.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, Buchanan was a cu­ra­to­rial as­sis­tant at the Art Gallery of Sud­bury for a cou­ple of years. Then she and Mun­caster de­cided to see more of Canada. They packed every­thing up and drove to White­horse where they worked while tour­ing the Yukon.

Buchanan started paint­ing again in White­horse, some­thing she had put off while work­ing at the art gallery. An en­counter with a griz­zly bear while they were driv­ing in heavy snow up the Rocky Moun­tains on the way to White­horse left its mark on her.

“We came over a hill and it was right in front of us. We slammed on the brakes and there was the largest bear we’d ever seen.” The huge bear saun­tered to the side of the road. They watched it from the car for half an hour and drove away.

“It was al­most like a dream,” she says. “It took my imag­i­na­tion to that place where magic hap­pens in art­work and writ­ing, where things hap­pen when you’re so in­spired and in awe.”

She worked all sum­mer on a paint­ing of the “Spirit Bear.”

And then she threw it out while pack­ing the car to re­turn to On­tario.

“I threw it in a dump­ster be­cause it was so painful com­ing from me. I was work­ing full-time and I was rusty. I had given up on paint­ing, on be­ing an artist, for three years and then I was try­ing to push out this thing and it was ag­o­niz­ing.”

They were well on their way be­fore she re­al­ized Mun­caster had res­cued the paint­ing.

“She left Spirit Bear up there lean­ing against a bin. I thought that was a trav­esty,” says Mun­caster, who is a ses­sional in­struc­tor at Hum­ber Col­lege in Toronto and has taught at sev­eral other uni­ver­si­ties, in­clud­ing Wil­frid Lau­rier Univer­sity and Univer­sity of Guelph.

“I’ve al­ways thought if Jess got enough time to fo­cus on her art, there is no limit to where she can go. She’s in­spir­ing. Her per­son­al­ity comes through in her work – cre­ative, en­er­getic, fun, deep, mul­ti­fac­eted.”

Buchanan says she “ex­ploded with paint­ing” when the cou­ple moved to Lon­don, Ont. “I sold a lot of paint­ings in acrylic. I was so happy I was paint­ing.”

They came to Guelph when Mun­caster started teach­ing at Hum­ber.

In 2016, Buchanan grad­u­ated with a post­grad­u­ate diploma in art ther­apy from the Toronto Art Ther­apy In­sti­tute. “I thought about how con­nected my men­tal health was to my paint­ing,” she says.

Her the­sis ex­plored art ther­apy in First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties and she vis­ited her re­serve for the first time. “It was over­whelm­ing in a pos­i­tive way” as peo­ple were cu­ri­ous about who she was and to whom she was re­lated.

She was paint­ing ev­ery day when their son, Day­ton, was born. “When I gave birth, I felt I saw my­self for the first time,” she says. “Maybe it’s want­ing to be a role model, a bet­ter per­son.”

The Win­nipeg Art Gallery’s project for Canada’s 150th birth­day seemed a good op­por­tu­nity “to use art to give peo­ple a voice as to how they feel about them­selves.”

Buchanan has shown her paint­ings in venues such as Agawa Bay Vis­i­tor Cen­tre in Lake Su­pe­rior Pro­vin­cial Park, Kloepfer Cus­tom Fram­ing and Gallery in Guelph and Mi­iji­daa café + bistro in Guelph. A por­tion of her sales of orig­i­nal art­work goes to­ward send­ing art sup­plies to First Na­tions, Inuit and Metis youth in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties in Canada through the Art for Aid Project.

“What I like about her is she paints what she wants and she paints what she feels,” says Kloepfer gallery owner Au­drey Kloepfer. “I got the feel­ing from her that she is an out­go­ing, in­spir­ing per­son.”

A col­lec­tor of her works, Lau­ren Kat­suno, owns four of Buchanan’s paint­ings and aims to add more so there is one in each room of her fam­ily’s Guelph home.

“Her work has an in­ef­fa­ble beauty that speaks to me on a very pri­mal level,” says Kat­suno who grew up around North Bay, Sud­bury and Man­i­toulin Is­land. “Her work makes me happy ev­ery day, be­cause it is like hav­ing lit­tle pieces of the places I love most.”

Buchanan has shows in Guelph at Mi­iji­daa café + bistro un­til Dec. 12 and at Kloepfer gallery in Septem­ber 2018.

“Her paint­ings are so vi­brant and they seem to speak to peo­ple,” says Mi­iji­daa’s Re­becca Gor­don, who is in charge of the art pro­gram. Buchanan was the first of many lo­cal artists whose work the café has fea­tured.

The café-bistro, whose name means “let’s eat” in Ojibwe, is hon­oured to host Buchanan’s work again, Gor­don says. “We’re re­ally proud of her.”

Ah­mik af­ter the Storm, Lake Su­pe­rior Pro­vin­cial Park

Hole in the Rock Trail, Elora Gorge

Naabe-Mooz, Al­go­nquin Park

Mukwa-Spirit Bear

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