Total pageviews

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The First Step, part 2

Ojibwe Bear Carl Ray


WHAT should be the first step in providing our readers with an insight into the fascinating universe that is behind our paintings and jewelry? I pondered on this for a while and decided to go with a pragmatic approach to start with: an explanation about the Woodland School of Art... No artists - or art movement - have more influence on our canvases and jewelry than our Anishinaabe, CreeMétis, and Dene brothers and sisters who paint in the great northerly tradition of the Woodland School. This is part 2 of the series.

==Establishment of the Woodland Art School==

The Woodland School of Art was established following the successful launch of Norval Morrisseau's career in Toronto in 1962 and became successful after the show Treaty Numbers 22, 187, 1171, a decade later in Winnipeg, displaying works by Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy and Alex Janvier.

The successful exhibition was the precursor of the foundation of the “Professional Native Indian Artists Association Inc.” in November 1973, in which Odaawaa-Bodéwadmi-Anglo artist Daphne Odjig was the driving force. The association, which became known as the Indian Group of Seven, consisted of Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy, Alex Janvier, Eddy Cobiness, Norval Morrisseau/Copper Thunderbird, Carl Ray, and Joseph Sanchez. Haida artist Bill Reid, although not formally signing on at the time, was considered the eighth member and participated in some of the groups shows.


==The role of Manitoulin Island==

The influence that the  Indian Group Of Seven had on the development of native art in Canada showed up first on Manitoulin Island, home to, among others, Daphne Odjig, Leland Bell, Randy TrudeauPeter Migwan, James Mishibinijima Simon, and Blair Debassige – and nowadays generally regarded as the center of the Woodland School of Art. A significant factor that spread Morrisseau's and Odjig's influence to what became a distinctive style were the summer art camps through the Manitou Arts foundation, started by Tom Peltier in 1966. Daphne Odjig and Carl Ray, among others, taught at the Arts Foundation and some of the students attending became the second generation of Woodland artists. In 1976 and 1977, the summer arts site was chosen at Dreamer's Rock on the Birch Island Reserve of Manitoulin, a place that has a substantial spiritual significance in Anishinaabe tradition.


==The role of Triple K Movement==

Triple K Co-operative Incorporated was a Canadian Indigenous peoples-run silk-screen company in Red Lake, Ontario that produced high quality limited editions of several artists within the Woodland School of Art from 1973 until early 1980s.

The name “Triple K” relates to the last name of the three founders and brothers Joshim KakegamicGoyce Kakegamig, and Henry Kakegamic, promiment medicine painters from Sandy Lake, Ontario. The paintings by Goyce and Joshim, whose works were shown with paintings by Isadore Wadow in the Waabanda-Iwewin Art Show (1984), are exemplary of the ''second generation Woodland Art''. Besides their own art work, they made editions for others artist as well like Barry Peters, Paddy Peters, Saul Williams, and their brother-in-law Norval Morrisseau/Copper Thunderbird. All artists involved were part of a movement that provided opportunities for themselves and other (mostly younger) indigenous artists; opportunities normally not available in the isolated Native communities of southern Canada, such as inclusion in galleries, access to fine arts education, and the creation of Native artist-run organizations. The movement also included the Indian Group of Seven, which established around the same time.


==Disciplines and styles==

Odawa Woodland artist Daphne Odjig

The New Woodland School of Art primarily features paintings, drawings, and screen printing (linocut) and lithograph, and occasionally jewelry making. The visionary style of this ceremonial and ritual art, which is more influenced by Native Eastern Woodland culture than European culture, is based on a myriad of sacred teachings that has been passed down for centuries, primarily by the Midewiwin and the Waabanoowiwin, two animistic-medicinal institutions representing and safeguarding since human memory the scientific, philosophic and ethic worldview of the Anishinaabe peoples. 

The style often emphasizes interconnecting "lines of power" and "lines of communication" radiating from the spines of the creatures portrayed, divided circles ("unity symbols"), and x-ray views of people, animals, plant life and supernatural beings. The X-ray anatomy, exposing the spiritual guts of animals and human beings, represent the source of Inner Power. This system of interconnecting lines of sacred pictographs, which was invented by Norval Morrisseau, is known as "linear determinatives".


With the aid of a few elegant bare lines I tried to capture the enchantingly still and cold world of the Great Lakes in this pencil drawing, which I titled Wiidigemaaganag (Niizhomaangwag) ("Life Partners/ Two Loons"). The illustration pays tribute to the abstract and economical style of the second generation of the Canadian Medicine painters. The black outlined images of the sun, loons, and man and woman in combination with the strange looking creatures and so-called 'spirit balls' in the air and the water identify the culturally based imagery as founded by the artists of the Woodland Painter School.


The idea behind this magical style that insiders often call ''medicine painting'', is to depict the ''essence'' or ''soul'' of the object or being that is represented, rather than what just meets the eye. The colors in paintings are sometimes earth-toned, but most often vivid and brilliant. While Morrisseau painted on birch bark initially, the media of Woodland style tend to be western, such as acrylic, gouache, or watercolor paints on paper, wood panels, or canvas. Whereas Norval Morrisseau and other first and second generation ''medicine painters'' like for example Carl Ray, Saul Williams, and Blake Debassige were building a reputation depicting the traditional stories of the Ojibwe and Cree First Nations by creating bold x-ray imagery, Ojibwe artists like Benjamin Chee Chee, Stanley Panamick, Cecil Youngfox, and Clemence Wescoupe added a new touch to the art by adopting a more minimalist and economical graphic style with simple, flowing lines and patterns set against a light background. This resulted in a reinterpretation of the new woodland style, characterized by a formal elegance that proved to be more congruent with the mainstream of international modern art.


Zhaawano trouwringen
A belt buckle of sterling silver set with turquoise and red coral I designed, displaying a minimalist graphic style with simple, flowing outlines and patterns set against a light background. The subject matter breaths Anishinaabe cultural tradition and worldview; the overlay design is exemplary of the minimalistic graphic style of some of the work of the first and second generation Woodland Art.


The work of first generation woodland painter Daphne Odjig (1919-2016), probably the most influential woodland artist besides Norval Morrisseau and regarded by insiders  as "the mother of Woodland art", differs from that of other woodland artists in that she is heavily influenced by European Modernism such as Picasso's cubism, be it within a Native context. This extraordinarily gifted painter from Wikwemikong, Manitoulin Island, also explored abstract expressionism, impressionism and cloissonnism, and is influenced by the Northwest Coast art.

Top page image: painting by first generation Cree Medicine Painter Carl Ray 
Photo of Daphne Odjig by TRACEY TONG/METRO OTTAWA

  • For further reading please click here (part 3 of the series).
  • To read more about the Group Of Seven, click here.


  1. Nice stuff. Love the painting of Norval. . . who did it?
    I've highlighted some of Blair Debassige's work on my blog a couple times. I'd like to see someone do an essay on the modern guys like Blair, Leland and Mish. Their works are incredible.
    I'll take a chance here and hit "reactie plaaten."

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thank you Sagacious, you hit the right button! I believe you're referring to the painting that I placed at the top of my previous post? That one was done in 2008 by Steven Snake.
      I agree that the works of Blair, Leland and Mish are top notch. The late Benjamin Chee Chee was awesome, too. When I have time I want to write about these 2nd generation guys as well.
      For now, the topic of my art blog is about the influence of the Medicine Painters on my own stuff - jewelry mostly. Although jewelry is a whole different discipline compared to painting, I consider myself part of the movement. Stylistically, Jackson Beardy, Benjamin Chee Chee, Stanley Panamick, Cecil Youngfox and Clemence Wescoupe are my biggest influences. But Morrisseau is the one who opened up my eyes and made me aware of a lot of powerful stuff that was at first hidden inside.