By Anna Horsnell
In exclusive conversations with the artists from The Prow Gallery, Breaking the Surface delves deeper into the personalities and passion behind the artistry. Our sincere thanks go out to each artist for graciously sharing from the heart.
Your Mi’kmaq name is Ala’suinu which means Traveller, someone who travels both physically and spiritually. How would you describe your artistic journey?
I have been drawing and painting since I could hold a pencil and a brush. My relatives such as my aunt, who was a visual arts teacher, would show me how to draw every summer when we both visited my grandmother(nukumi) in St. David’s, NL. Her teachings and instruction really helped me develop my drawing skills at a very early age. My whole family knew that I would be involved with culture and art in some way. After travelling to Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia in 2009, I realized that Mi’kmaq Petroglyphs(carvings in stone) were going to be a part of my future artistic journey. These petroglyphs were left behind by my ancestors, and were important for me to capture in my art for future generations.
As a Newfoundland artist, you grew up surrounded by the sea. Much of your work tells stories of the ocean and the creatures who call it home. Why does the ocean in particular hold such importance for you?
The ocean is very important in my art. It allows me to capture my favourite animals such as whales(putup), fish(salmon-plamu), and turtles(Mikjikj). It also allows me to display various themes with these animals together such as joy, support, strength, love, unity, and community connectedness.
Symbolism is so important in your work. What does symbolism allow you to say with your art that perhaps realism cannot?
The components that I use in my Art are the Mi’kmaq Star, hieroglyphs, double curve designs and appliqué patterns. All of these designs are petroglyphs(carvings in stone), and are very symbolic. These symbols allow me to have several themes, meanings, and tell a visual story.
As with many of the symbols you use, the eight-pointed Mi’kmaq star goes back hundreds of years. What message does this ancient star design have for the 21st century?
When the Mi’kmaq Star is painted the four colours of the medicine wheel, it displays cultural unity amongst all people on Mother Earth. I want to show that it is important for us to learn about, not only our culture, but, other cultures as well. To quote Barrack Obama, “we do not benefit from learning about only one culture, but, a multiplicity of cultures”.
Beyond the symbolism, the thoughtful design and colour of your work immediately catch the eye. How much are you guided by tradition and how much is your own inspiration?
I am guided by ancestors, who inspire, and enlighten my artistic path. My Mi’kmaq Ancestors have left behind a rich database of artistic knowledge at Kejimkujik National Park, and with various artifacts. Through exploration of my ancestors’ knowledge, I feel it is important to capture this knowledge in my own way. This frequent exploration of my ancestors’ petroglyph art has led to my own style which I am very thankful to my ancestors for.
As a former teacher, aspects of your work as an artist seem to be a natural extension of that training. Your wonderful series of family colouring books, for example, are an easily accessible and fun way to learn about Mi’kmaq culture. How did this series come about and what have you learned while creating these books?
Before I created my five-volume series colouring books titled “Colouring Mi’kma’ki: A Colouring Book Of Mi’kmaq Territory”, there were no other Mi’kmaq colouring books on the market that I was aware of. In fact, there were not many Mi’kmaq educational resources on the market in 2018 that could be purchased at a bookstore or gift shop. I wanted to create a learning resource that families could explore together, at an introductory level, with Mi’kmaq Language, pronunciation phonetics, and the English word. Through creating these books, I have learned that people enjoy learning together, and want to learn about culture at a pace that is comfortable for them. People have contacted me from around the world saying how much they enjoy these learning resources. I am really proud of these resources, and thankful to all the people for their support. These colouring book learning resources can be found at The Rooms Gift Shop at this link: https://shop.therooms.ca/Catalogue/gift-shop/books
Much of your artwork hangs in public buildings and locations allowing everyone the opportunity to not only enjoy your artwork but to also learn more about Mi’kmaq culture. What is the most important message you try to pass on through your work?
The most important message that I try to pass on is through my regular occurring themes: support, strength, love, joy, fortitude, unity, and spiritual and community connectedness. My painting and artistic goals are to honour diversity; show environmental stewardship; honour the beautiful artistic knowledge that my ancestors left behind; and show the beauty of Mi’kmaq Culture to the world.
Would you share the name of another artist who inspires you and why?
I am inspired by Norval Morrisseau for the level of colour mastery and expression he brought to every painting.
What are you most grateful for as an artist?
I am grateful to Creator for allowing me to create Mi’kmaq art everyday based on the artistic knowledge of my ancestors.
What’s something about yourself that would surprise most people?
What surprises most people is how much I love to drum, pow wow dance, and sing Mi’kmaq traditional songs. I love to sing and participate on the ‘big drum’ and ‘hand drum’ as much as possible. Before my painting and mural commissions got too busy, I used to be a part of the local men’s drum group called “Spirit Bay Drummers” which surprised many people. We drummed at various pow wows, and for many events such as Truth and Reconciliation Day,
Vigils, Take Back The Night, and Indigenous Day. I was very proud and thankful to be a part of the group, and they have told me, that my drum stick is always available when I am.
Msit No’kmaq(All My Relations-We Are All Connected). Wela’lioq(Thank-you everyone for viewing).