Tracey Lawko is a textile artist and the mind behind a Canada-wide collaborative art project called Reflections of Ourselves.
Lawko found herself interested in the “concept of Canada” after witnessing an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment and hate crimes. The project is a response to a question she posed to herself.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to do something that recognized the richness of the diversity in our country, and what it brings to us all?”
The completed art installation, also known as the Maple Leaf Project, will adorn an eight-foot textile tree’s wire branches with roughly 180 unique, textile maple leaves designed by Indigenous, settler, and immigrant Canadians.
“I see the differences between our cultures as being like the differences between individual leaves,” said Lawko. “Yes, we’re different. Yes, we’re individual. But fundamentally, there are a lot of things that are the same.
“We’re not looking at the political boundaries of countries … because those change all the time. But what are the socio-cultural groups that have been present here from time immemorial in our Indigenous peoples, and who are the people that have come over time and added to the wonderful culture of Canada?”
While each leaf will begin with the same template for consistent sizing, the rest of the design and creative process is entirely up to each participant.
“I want the leaf to be a total expression of the participant, of their personal creativity, their personal story, and their cultural heritage,” explained Lawko.
“So the design on the leaf, the materials they choose, the technique that they use, those are all the choice of the individual artists.”
Kleo Skavinski, who is Dene from the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation in Wrigley, is the project’s Indigenous consultant. Skavinski’s role is to ensure Indigenous perspectives are represented.
Working from Hay River, Skavinski said the experience of connecting with Indigenous artists across the country has been “irreplaceable.”
“A couple of the participants that I’ve been talking to are coming back into their cultures after being disrupted through whatever means of assimilation and cultural genocide in their generations,” Skavinski explained.
“They’re coming into this piece as, like, ‘A place I can explore what it means to be part of my community,’ in a way that might not have ever been thought of, especially artistically.
“Once it’s created, it joins this huge, other, fuller sculpture of all these other people doing the same thing.”
The 180 groups Lawko hopes will be represented comprise 120 settler immigrant groups and 60 Indigenous groups. While roughly half of those groups have been spoken for, Lawko said she recognizes the project may still be missing some cultural groups by the time the tree is exhibited in Ontario – at the Orillia Museum of Art and History – in late May.
“My expectation is that the tree will continue to grow and that more leaves will come in over time,” she said.
“People will say, ‘Well, you haven’t got my culture.’ And so I’m hoping that … we really will have a much more complete picture over time.”
Lawko and Skavinski said the project takes a non-political approach.
“I like the idea that we have a manifestation of this land and of the people in the community here … without the thought of Canada itself,” said Skavinski.
“It’s about place and it’s about home, and how we’re all part of the same community. And I think that’s pretty magical.”
Expressions of interest can be made through the project’s website, where Lawko keeps a list of the cultural groups that have yet to be included.
As of Sunday, that list included the Denesuline, Gwich’in, and Tłı̨chǫ. Expressions of interest are due by February 28.