Making Stories (Artist's Statement)

By Racette, Sherry Farrell | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, June-September 2008 | Go to article overview

Making Stories (Artist's Statement)


Racette, Sherry Farrell, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


As both artist and cultural historian, I am drawn to the stories and artistic legacy of Indigenous women, particularly those I am descended from. I have always liked stories, and as long as I can remember they took visual form as I listened, sometimes half asleep and on the verge of dreaming. Two incidents triggered the female-centered direction my artwork has taken. One motivated me to pick up my paintbrushes after a long hiatus. As a working single mother, I had stopped making art. I was teaching at the Gabriel Dumont Institute in Regina, Saskatchewan, at the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program. The students had organized a conference, and one of the presenters was Shannon Two Feathers. I snuck into the back of the classroom and listened to Shannon share the stories he had collected from elders at Batoche. (1) Shannon was a professional entertainer and one hell of a story teller. One particular story, of women and children hiding in caves along the Saskatchewan River while a Gatling gun peppered the shoreline with bullets, transported me to another time and place. I went home, dug around in a box in the basement for a box of watercolors, and painted. I have painted that story four times. From that time until the present I have worked with Metis, Cree, and Anishnabe authors and painted their stories. I try to communicate my love and respect through the images. Stories of the Road Allowance, collected and translated by Maria Campbell, is a project that I was very proud to illustrate. (2) Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, these are true life stories collected from male elders. "Good Dog Bob" tells the tale of a young man's first sexual experience. To illustrate a critical moment in the story, I painted a woman looking at a teenage boy. With her back to him, she looks over her shoulder, a wordless seduction as she beckons him to follow. I tried to capture the magic of a northern night, when the stars and the snow shine like diamonds and anything seems possible.

In Fiddle Dancer, a grandfather tells his grandson how he learned to be such a good dancer. (3) The Red River Jig is the most loved and recognized fiddle tune and dance in the Metis world. Here a baby, upon hearing the tune, cries until his mother picks him up and dances with him in her arms. As I painted Wilfred Burton's story, I also thought of dancing with my own daughter when she was a baby.

Some time after I began painting again, another gathering set me on a search for women's stories. The World Council of Indigenous People's Conference on Education was held in Vancouver in 1987. The Enowkiin Centre and Theytus Press had organized a parallel conference on writing and publication. Joy Harjo, Anna Walters, and Patricia Grace were among the Indigenous authors who kept me spellbound for three days, but it was a project that Patricia Grace described that set me on a project I am still working on. Patricia spoke about the loss of women's stories from Maori mythology--the cumulative result of generations of male anthropologists focusing on male stories and storytellers. With Maori painter Robyn Kahukiwa, she had embarked on a research project to find and retell women's stories. (4) I was inspired to do the same. Since then, I am always looking for specific women's stories or the women's story in larger narratives, both historic and mythological. Of course the fact that I am a woman and experience the world through a woman's eyes and body is also an important factor. In many ways the women in my paintings are a strategy to insert myself into historic and mythological narratives, claiming them as my own. Sometimes I create my own stories, but most often the stories come to me through historical sources and storytellers.

Apparition, October 3,1885 (1992) (cover image) and Riel's Vision of Death, 1885 (1992) were created as visual responses to the symbolic and ghostly Metis women that occur in Louis Riel's writing. Riel was the leader of Metis resistance to Canada's expansion into the northwest (Manitoba 1869-70; Saskatchewan 1885). …

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