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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Artist inspirations, part 5

"Spirits of the Mountains"

- Updated September 19, 2018


Simone McLeod Fisher Star Creations


Today's blog post pays tribute to the mountains, the earth, the moon, the stars, and the People who for countless generations live on the land that they still call Anishinaabe Aki: land of the Anishinaabe Peoples.

No artist is more indelibly tied and synonymous to, and adept of making us see, the spirit of asiniiwajiw mishoomishag, the majestic Rocky Mountains of Alberta, than Anishinaabe painter and poet Simone McLeod - or, as her traditional name is, Aki-egwaniizid (Earth Blanket). Born in the Name doodem (sturgeon clan) in Manitoba where her mother's People the Nakawē Ojibweg come from, and having lived for the bigger part of her life in Saskatchewan where her father's People the Saulteaux live, Simone frequently visits the Rockies in Alberta. Surrounded by the Mountain Grandfathers who sit there patiently, their remote and towering cliffs and ragged ridges and snow-capped peaks reaching into the vast skies, illuminated at night by Grandmother Moon and her favorite star constellation, the Fisher Star (Big dipper), Simone finds inspiration and peace of mind.

Simone once described to me the magnetic relationship she has with the mountais and the vast earth and the starry skies as if it were synonymous with a love affair:  

"No one sees the Mountains like I do.

I see Mother Earth stretched all over here. She is free to be herself. Her essence is everywhere.

The sky is her lover. He lingers about her every crevice. Dipping in and out wantonly. He is not shy here where a love so strong can blossom like the budding trees, to be spread throughout this planet.

It is a wondrous union inspiring artists from near and far. It causes longing and need in me that I do not see in people around me. I will forever hold the sight of this love-making in my heart."

When a friend on Facebook asked Simone about the symbolism of the painting, suggesting that the female spirit in the center of the canvas dressed in brown is a beautiful young spirit, being admired by older spirits yet timidly concealing her beauty, Simone responded as follows:

"I have lived around the mountains since I decided to become me instead of we. I found that when I stayed at the Mountain Hotel in Alberta I would wake at five or six a.m. and head out to the field to pray waiting for the morning sun to bring his kisses of great warmth on a confused and lonely heart. I think that as artists it is our plight to be always searching, and to never find that which we are looking for. I laid down the canvas and gently unrolled it. I saw grays first thing when I touched it. I could see the grays and knew that this was going to be a very dismal job. I mean that when I saw them, I wondered how I would make them more vibrant but I trust my instincts all the time. I find that it is easy to bring the grayest canvas to life by adding whites for it is like adding light to the darkest of rooms and your eyes get to enjoy the life slowly coming when this process is done. I painted one mountain and added another until I could see the peaks that called to me each morning. I knew the Grandmother moon had to be there. She is the light in the Grandfather Rocks' eyes and she is his light. I painted the Elders to honor the spirits of the mountains. When I first saw them many many, many, many, moons ago, I stopped the car and cried by the beauty of finding the greatest rocks from the greatest sweats I had been to and I knew that they were indeed full of life. As I finished the Elders I could not help but notice the empty space under the moon and it was then that I could see her hiding there. My name is Earth Blanket and I am of the Sturgeon Clan and I could see a woman lying there naked covered only in lakes and trees and "all that covers the earth". She is not even aware of her beauty. The hills done in the brown are like a blanket trailing from her and rolling onto the earth like a gift to us. The lakes pour from a glacier depicted by her head, a life source, a place where clarity is born and shared. She is the life blood of our Mother the Earth. The fisher star is a gift to me to teach me about real love and caring, understanding, respect and growth of self. When I finished this piece I sat there and could see it in my head and to this day I can still feel it under my fingertips..."


Spirit Of The Mountains
So, when Simone showed me the newly-finished painting named "Spirits Of the Mountains" I had to think of these words, and I was immediately struck by the harmonious composition of the painting, the contrasting colors she used and the dramatic movement of the mountains in the background. What equally struck me was her choice of depicting the spirits of the mountain grandfathers as mirror images in the foreground. What really amazed me, though, was that she did not provide these six omishoomisimaag mazinichiganag (grandfather images) with male characteristics, as one would expect; instead, she depicted these mountain spirits as ookomisan: grandmothers. 

Although initially I did not ask her why she painted women instead of men, I suspected she did it intuitively because, after all, women, like the earth itself, possess the gift of life. Is it not true that our women form the backbone of society, possessing the key to wisdom and survival of our communities? Is it not true that, like Omizakamigokwe (Mother Earth) herself, her elemental substance being asin (rock), women are able to conceive and give birth to oshki-bimaadiziwin (new life)? Have women not always been regarded and cherished and honored by the People as they sustain their society with beauty and nourishment, in the same way the earth does with nature? 

I had no doubt that Simone, who comes from a long line of Mide (Medicine) People, being an artist working in the tradition of the ancient Anishinaabe rock painters - and uses a paint brush to honor life in the same way her ancestors did through prayer, chant, dance, and ceremony -, understands and acknowledges this principle, this ancient understanding. She knows that even the mountains are nourished from the earth; I suspect that by depicting the spirits of the grandfather mountains as women, she honors and celebrates all motherhood - and therefore life itself -  in a special, sacred way.

But when asked about the gender of the spirits in the foreground, she answered this: 

"When I did this piece I did it with the understanding that when these spirits so ancient and pure became those who reside there, they have reached a realm where the gender is not important. They are male and female and they are so divine that they are equal. To be equal with a man or a woman one will not look at the physical traits of the other. You will sit together and know and feel this equality. A true teacher will never put his or herself above anyone else promoting their best qualities. To be worthy to sit in this position, one's humility is what does NOT set them apart from others and that is what makes them special."


Aki-ekwanisit Simone McLeod Anishinaabe Native Woodland Art
When I asked Simone about the symbolism in the painting, the female elders sitting on the earth, the mountains in the background beneath the night sky, she said this:

“The mountain people are like us

Living in the strength of shadows observing and loving.

Embracing. Depending on each other and loving each other.

They are seen only by the light of the moon as observed when I drove through the Ice Fields of Alberta this summer.

They are strong and uncomplicated. Pure... in feeling and being...

One of the mountain spirits, the one whose left foot resembles a catfish tail, cries silently for the people.

The women are depicted as elders to show how ancient they are.

Their poses show how I felt when I made the painting.

Tenderly cared for, depending and safe. The poses bring all that out.

It is beautiful.

I feel special and sacred...

Mother Earth, the woman in the center, is the only one with color.

She lies there unaware of prying eyes who view her as sacred beauty.
She does not know of the life she gives.

Her blood is the rivers stemming from her hair which is a lake.
Her body with its gentle curves is the earth.

The Fisher Star in the night sky is there for those who see it.... as always.” 


A dangerous place

Earth Blanket/Simone McLeod
The story that Simone relates through her painting elegantly dramatizes the dependence her People used to have on aki (the earth) and the mountains and the spirits that live in, under, and above them. The ancestors knew that the mountains like Omizaka-migokwe (Mother Earth) herself, could never be trusted or taken for granted, no matter how   breathtakingly beautiful they often appeared to be. 

Sure, the sight of the jagged ridges and rocky pinnacles and snow-capped peaks stirred in their souls pure joy and humble reverence - and sometimes melancholy and depression -, but they also knew that the mountains could be an extremely treacherous and life-threatening place and that no one was granted a safe shelter, or any kind of dominion over them. For this reason the ancestors ritualized their dependence on the Mountain Grandfathers with offerings of asemaa, the sacred tobacco, each time they went into the mountains, often leaving behind brilliantly colored ribbons to flutter freely in the wind. 

A spiritual presence 

What Simone's painting clearly shows is that besides beauty, the mountains also have manidoowiwin, a spiritual presence (see the female figures in the foreground). This aura of mystery, often called manidoowad or a sacrosanct atmosphere, bestows a sacred quality on certain remote places...As a rule these places were left undisturbed by the ancestors out of respect for the privacy of the manidoog and perhaps out of fear of offending them. The only reason to enter the homes of the manidoog would be to look for visions and dreams, to talk to the supernatural beings directly. Look at the remote places in the barren mountains, solid, severe, and strong, and it is not hard to imagine that for the ancestors, no place was more fitting to address the manidoog, to gain entry in their world and have them enter into their dreams. Look at a deep crevice of a hidden rock site and you can imagine that no place was more suitable for visions. Look at the unique formations and remote places near or in caves and waterfalls and towering cliffs and round boulders and craters with gently sloping walls, and it is not hard to believe that many generations of youngsters used to come there, looking for spiritual guidelines, and gaining special instructions in bimaadiziwin, the ways of life. Nor is it hard to believe that even still today these rocks are a place of pilgrimage for local members of the Anishinaabeg and Nēhilawē and Denésoliné Nations

Simone's thoughts on this matter are as follows:

"This whole last year since I made the decision to answer a calling that went deeper than the usual realities of our existence like love, money, and health and decided to leave the norm, I had the opportunity to spend much time in the mountains. 

I knew that they had spirits and that I could almost see them sitting there smiling at me. I knew that they were the keepers of prayers. Whenever one of us held tobacco in their hands and said a prayer, those prayers went to the mountain spirits. They would then send out the knowledge that is there for the asking to those who asked..." 

Teachers of Mankind

Spirit of the Mountains

The longer I looked at the painting, and having mused Simone's words for a while, it suddenly dawned on me that to us, the mountains are not just a place of beauty and a place to dream, a place to seek and fulfill personal visions; they are gekinoo'amaagedjig, teachers as well. It is very imaginable that it was through the mountains or the vicinity of the mountains, through their often savage, inhospitable, and mysterious character but also the breathtaking, panoramic beauty they hold and display, that the Anishinaabeg discovered and acknowledged – and learned to appreciate and cherish - the existence of GICHI-MANIDOO, the sum of all Mystery, the original source of all Life. No other place, no landform, no physical feature of Mother Earth could do that better than the mountains. There were no other places on Earth that filled the Anishinaabe people with more humbleness and gratitude than the mountains, or the proximity of the mountains. No other place moved them to such awe or so led their minds to thoughts of GICH-MANIDOO and GAAGIGEKAMIG (infinity) as did the mountains. And no force on earth allowed the Anishinaabe people to understand more profoundly their unique place in relation to all other living beings, yes to their unique place in the whole of cosmos, as did asiniiwajiw mishoomishag, the mountain grandfathers in the West…

This knowledge, this understanding, is something we owe to the creator of this magnificent painting. It is a gift to be grateful for, because through her work, this gift to us, it was she who has brought the grandfathers back to life, for all of us to see.

Giiwenh: this is how far the story goes. 
Miigwech for reading and listening and giga-waabamin: see you later!

> Read part 6 in the series.


Aki-egwaniizid (Earth Blanket)
Zhaawano Giizhik Unieke Trouwringen Design

About the artist and the author:

Simone (her traditional name is Aki-egwaniizid, which is an Ojibwe name meaning "Earth Blanket") is an Anishinaabe painter and poet, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1962 and a member of Pasqua First Nation in Saskatchewan. She belongs to he Name doodem (Sturgeon clan) and feels a special kinship with her mother's people, the Azaadiwi-ziibi Nitam-Anishinaabeg (Poplar River First Nation) of Manitoba. Simone descends from a long line of Midewiwin seers and healers and artists. Her artwork has been appreciated by several art collectors and educational and health care institutions from Canada, as well as by art lovers from all over the world.

My name is Zhaawano Giizhik. I am an American currently living in the Netherlands. I was born in 1959 in North Carolina, USA. I have Anishinaabe blood running through my veins, the doodem of my ancestors from Baawiting (Sault Ste. Marie, Upper Michigan) is Waabizheshi, Marten. As an artist and a writer and a jewelry designer I draw on the oral and pictorial traditions that my ancestors left me. In doing so I sometimes work together with kindred artists. Simone and I have done several art projects together in the past and will hopefully create many in the future.

Painting "Spirits Of The Mountains" 28 x 58 ' (71 x 147 cm) acrylic on canvas, 2013 posted with permission of Simone McLeod/Aki-egwaniizid. Copyright Simone Mcleod, Fisher Star Creations. Click here to go to our website.

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