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Arts

Indigenous artists rely on their work’s remedial power in pandemic

A relief valve on a steam-powered engine is small, but mighty.

When too much steam builds up, an overly pressurized engine is at risk of exploding. The relief valve’s simple job is crucial: release steam until the pressure reduces to an acceptable level.

A good valve can be the difference between function and failure.

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Antoine Mountain thinks about this in his Peterborough, Ontario home. The Dene visual artist, from Fort Good Hope, NWT, has had his own share of pressures.

When the steam builds up, art is Mountain’s relief valve. Born and raised on the land, he has been painting and drawing since he was a child.

“It’s always been a release,” he says.

Thousands of miles from home in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mountain is using art’s therapeutic power to help him through. He completes two to three pieces a day, posting the results to Facebook.

Intimate portraits of Dene people, animals, and landscapes fill the page, sketched in black pen with criss-crossing coloured lines.

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“Especially at a time like this, it’s a natural phenomenon for the mind to shut itself off to protect the person in isolation,” Mountain says.

“So any kind of cultural or artistic expression is good for you.”

‘Mentally very exhausting’

Art has always been a means of connection. It allows the artist to infuse bits of themselves in a piece. In times of crisis, it can offer direction and help to interpret what is going on around us.

Tania Larsson faced the pandemic by creating a virtual beading circle.

Since 2017, the Gwich’in and Swedish artist has been making and selling traditional jewelry from her home studio in Yellowknife. It’s a way to connect with her Gwich’in heritage and reclaim the culture that colonization tried to stamp out.

She creates earrings and necklaces from caribou tufts, moose hides, and other raw materials.

“It’s about bringing back power to us as individuals who appreciate the art form and who appreciate the cultural connection, too,” she says.

From a business perspective, Covid-19 hasn’t had too much impact on Larsson’s art. Working from home was the norm. She was always set up for this.

But the projects have given her something to keep her hands moving and her mind occupied. In the relaxing repetition of stitching and beading there’s a comforting sense of familiarity.

Then, every Sunday, about a dozen people across the country tune in to Instagram for Larsson’s beading circle. They check on each other and commiserate, sharing thoughts and feelings while beading in their respective homes.

“It’s mentally very exhausting for a lot of people,” she says. “I’m trying to make fun things for people to be able to make it through this time.”

Larsson feels lucky. She gets to do what she loves and is in a territory with only five confirmed Covid-19 patients so far – all of whom have recovered.

She has friends who aren’t so fortunate. Some live on reservations and struggle to access things like clean water and medical care.

“I think [the pandemic] reinforces how important it is to be rich in relationships, building relationships across communities and families,” she says.

A grandfather’s legacy

Outside Calgary, Inuit carver Priscilla Boulay is adjusting to life in isolation as she homeschools her two young daughters.

Originally from Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, she is the third generation in a line of Inuk carvers who bring to life the Arctic landscape in muskox horns, caribou antlers, and soapstone.

Boulay has been carving full-time for six years, selling her work and celebrating her family’s legacy on her website, Inuvialuit Carvers.

For Boulay, art holds an element of escapism. Pouring herself into her work, she clears her mind.

“You tap out of reality for a while,” she says. “You get so into creating, and have your music going, and get lost in carving.”

Covid-19 has made that more important now to Boulay than ever before. Her imagination lets her out of lockdown.

“It’s a chance to see stories come alive,” she says.

Her favourite thing to carve are beluga whales. The figures remind her of hunting beluga as a teenager, and they bring her back to Arctic shores.

Boulay moved to Calgary 10 years ago and hasn’t been back home in at least eight years. (She misses camping and pulling up big trout while fishing.) Art gives her purpose when things get tough, and connects her to home.

“Everything I do is to keep my grandfather’s legacy alive,” she says.

Antoine Mountain

Antoine Mountain in a submitted photo.

Back in Peterborough, Mountain is getting ready to return to Fort Good Hope for the summer. He is set to fly back in mid-June, exempted from the territory’s border restrictions as a resident.

His regular circuit of summer art shows has been cancelled, but he has other plans. He has worked with youth in his community for several years, leading art workshops.

“The majority of our youth, for whatever reason, are already very gifted in one form of the arts or another,” he says.

In the meantime, Mountain keeps sketching and painting. The pandemic will never stop him doing what feeds his soul.

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