So much has taken place over the short while. With it all being intertwined, I thought it best to combine the updates for both the icons and totems as they are part of the same picture. Only time will tell whether it is a sign of the journey that is ahead.
As soon as I had completed and delivered the Ste. Anne icon on July 17th, I needed to push ahead and get the design going for the St. Kateri icon for St. Thomas Aquinas High School. The research was a bit tedious as the statues and images of St. Kateri are all over the place. None struck me as authentic, other then the small original painting of her which gives precious little information, typical of most paintings of that era. I also researched Mohawk images given that her father was from the Mohawk Nation. I also sent a few emails to the shrine and conference center in the United States (both with Mohican contacts) to double check my info and whether I was on the right path.
From all that, I prepared the design and constructed the board. I had just inked in the design onto the board when I saw a Facebook posting about Carey Newman refurbishing his 2008 totem. I inquired as to where the totem was. When he said Duncan, I volunteered my help if he needed. So I happily went in to Duncan on Wednesday last week to help for the day, with no idea what to expect. I was just ready to help in whatever way that was needed. I was just thrilled that I had followed my instincts, in that this was an opportunity to connect with a totem in its refurbishing, (after my journey with totems within my painting series).
I had no expectations in particular for the day, other then just doing what was needed. I started by doing some sanding, and after a short while, I was asked if i could start painting. That was great. I was part of that first coat of colours after the Spirit Pole had been sanded. I may not be an expert on all forms used by each nation, but I was familiar with what I was seeing, and recognizing where the edges were (or should be if sanded out). There was one small form that I had to double check on. After the first day, I offered to return on Thursday, so long as I was more of a help then a hindrance. After a good long day of painting on Thursday, I returned Friday to help with the oiling of the totem. I didn't have a lot to do on Friday, so it gave me quality time to study the totem and the carved movement within.
The totem experience was memorable.
There was a one very special moment on the first day, when a blind Elder came to visit with the totem. It was one of those rare and important moments where you become fully aware and just know that you need to absorb it all. I was there to experience it. To best capture the experience, I’ve just copy/pasted what I had put together on my Facebook page that same evening (July 26th):
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It was a great day on many levels today. The opportunity of helping Carey Newman in a small way, an artist that I greatly admire, as he refurbishes one of his totems in Duncan, raised in 2008. The day started with some sanding. I would have been content with that. Then came the joyous task of painting. All a blessing. It was especially dear to me as it was a visceral connection to the totem. The final blessing which I will have etched in my memory always, was witnessing the joy and animation of an Elder that arrived to visit with the totem. The moment became sacred for me (hard to know how else to describe it). In an instant, when Carey and his assistant Tegas cleared the space for the Elder to approach, the interaction that followed was like having a veil removed from my eyes, and seeing the truth of the totem and Culture, through new eyes. I've always had a deep love and respect of the totems, and the wonder and majesty that they are, but here, this was different. I hope that I am not sharing something that I shouldn't. The Elder was blind. Once helped to the totem, the sight of the Elder was brilliant, as he felt the forms of the Frog and the rest of the totem which he could reach at ground level. Carey described the totem which was out of reach. The interaction was so natural and superseded everything else that was going on around us. All the while, through the Elder's wonderment and words, I for the first time, felt a glimpse of what he was seeing. This wasn't just a solid carved form but a swirl of life and interaction. And the joy of finding cracks within which gifts of tobacco etc. could be placed. I've always loved the aging of wood but cracks will never just be cracks anymore. I feel as I had been given a great gift today.
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On the weekend following, I began mixing colours and trying base colours for the Kateri icon.
Father Laboucane called yesterday (July 31), saying how much people liked the Siksika Sacred Heart icon and the Ste. Anne icon during the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage in Alberta, the annual pilgrimage attended by many First Nations. He said that I may have opened a whole other niche in my iconography. The possibility is interesting but also a bit daunting. But so long as I can eventually find my way with each, with the support of First Nations collaborators...
I then received an email from Sister Kateri Mitchell in the United States, in reply to my inquiry for the Kateri icon. She herself is Mohican. I was pleased to read that she was happy with the research I had done, and the direction in which I was going with the design. This icon, like my others, will be distinct, and will reconnect somewhat to the original portrait. It reminds me of the process with the Anne-Marie Martel icon where the original (and only authentic image) also needed much research.
The one recommendation from Sister Kateri, which was an “Oh” moment, was that braids not be used. My design on the icon board had braids… She said that all artists resort to the stereotype of braids, but they were not typical with Mohawk or Iroquois. I replied in thanks for her guidance and for the timeliness given that I was just starting painting the icon board. I could still sand down what I needed to in order to rework the image.
I am pleased with the growing First Nations collaborators within my work, especially within the my new direction of First Nation icons. I am hoping to also gradually make inroads within totem painting series, as more and more see the series for what they are. But it isn't surprising to me that both these interests combine as easily as they do. They after all, are all part of me, all part of the same. Both forms are iconographic. Both are based on the life of wood, both are in water based colour, both comprise of spiritual language, symbolism, and stories, and both are finished with coats of oil; the variation being that I use a non-yellowing sealer for my acrylic icons which are used indoors).
So as I said earlier, the past few days have been full. The key in the next few weeks or months, will be to keep eyes wide open to decipher other opportunities as they present themselves.
But in the short term, the immediate challenge will be the record breaking temperatures we are experiencing in British Columbia (as so many other areas). Even with the 2 portable AC units, it gets hot in here. We are headed into the high 30s before humidex.