How an auspicious discovery sparked art at Wanuskewin

Art | Gregory Beatty | Sept. 29, 2022

Lori Blondeau. Photo by Barbara L. Reimer.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Until Jan. 15

September 5, 2020 was a big day for Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Not only did it reopen after being closed for five months in the initial Covid shutdown, it also unveiled a newly renovated facility as part of a $40 million renewal project.

The highlight is the new bison viewing platform, but the gift shop, restaurant, trail system and art gallery all got upgrades — including the construction of an artist’s studio to host residencies.

Two years later, Phenomena is the first major fruit of that endeavour. The exhibition, which opened at Wanuskewin on Sept. 26, features work by four noted Indigenous artists: Adrian Stimson (Blackfoot), Wally Dion (Saulteaux), Leah Dorion (Métis) and Lori Blondeau (Cree/Saulteaux/Métis), and is curated by Wanuskewin curator Olivia Kristoff.

“One of the special things about our residency program at Wanuskewin is the land,” said Kristoff in a late August phone interview. “We also have elders, archaeologists and bison experts, and all that plays an important part in the creative process.”

Located 13 km northwest of Saskatoon, Wanuskewin has many special treasures that reflect the rich history of Indigenous life on the prairies — including tipi rings, a buffalo jump, medicine wheel, a growing herd of bison which were introduced in 2019, and since 2020, four stone petroglyphs. Park staff didn’t know about the petroglyphs until they were uncovered, in a cosmically wondrous way, by the newly arrived bison when they were wallowing in a paddock.

Figure Four

The residency’s theme was inspired by the four petroglyphs, says Kristoff.

“When we found them, it was this incredible discovery and we knew we wanted to do something,” says Kristoff. “We decided to bring in four artists from four different nations to dive into the importance of the number four. It’s kind of everywhere: the four directions, four seasons, four colours, and now we have these four petroglyphs.”

Stimson’s residency was the first to take place.These days he lives on son the Siksika reserve in southern Alberta but from 2005 to the mid-2010s he lived in Saskatoon. Stimson has made bison a central focus of his art practice, with the best-known example being his notoriously flamboyant “Wild” West character Buffalo Boy.

He was an obvious choice, says Kristoff.

“Adrian was here in September 2021,” she recalls. “That was a special time because it was only a few days after he started his residency that a baby bison was born. It was really late in the season, so it was a surprise baby.”

Another meaningful moment came when Stimson got to hold a stone carving tool that had been found by one of the petroglyphs.

“Tools are almost never found by petroglyphs,” says Kristoff. “It’s essentially like a business card for the artist, where they would have made the drawing and left the tool behind as a way of saying, ‘I’m the one who did this.’

“It was this connection where Adrian was holding something that someone held hundreds or even thousands of years ago to create the petroglyph,” Kristoff adds. “I think it really inspired him, knowing that not only was he on the same land as this person all those years ago, he was also holding the ‘paintbrush’ used to create the art work.”

Wally Dion was the next artist up. Like Stimson, Dion studied at University of Saskatchewan, and has exhibited previously at Wanuskewin. His residency ran from late October to early November 2021, and at one point, Kristoff says, he worked with Wanuskewin archaeologist Ernie Walker.

“One thing they did was bring out a ground-penetrating radar,” she says. “Dr. Walker works with the RCMP, so when they were discovering graves at residential schools he was heavily involved in that.

“Wally was interested in the science behind that, because a lot of his work connects with residential schools and Indigenous identity,” says Kristoff. “It was something you wouldn’t ordinarily have in a residency, but we just happened to have an archaeologist who works with the RCMP.”

After a winter break, Leah Dorion was the third artist to visit Wanuskewin. She’s from Prince Albert, and is best-known for her brightly patterned paintings of Métis life and legends inspired by beadwork. Her residency ran from late May to early June 2022, says Kristoff.

“That was just after this year’s bison babies would have been born,” she says. “A lot of Leah’s work incorporates moon-cycles and the day after she started there was a lunar eclipse, which was special for her.”

The final artist, Lori Blondeau, currently teaches at University of Manitoba. But she used to live in Saskatoon,  where she studied at the University of Saskatchewan, co-founded the Indigenous arts collective Tribe in 1995, and crafted a rich and varied art practice highlighted by her creative partnership with Stimson which saw her create her own “Wild” West character, Belle Sauvage.

“Lori was here in July, and she did a lot of her work on the bison jump,” says Kristoff. “We actually went out to where the first petroglyph was discovered and the bison were all in there. You could almost reach out and touch them.

“We also spoke with an elder and, when we showed her a petroglyph we have in the exhibit hall, she talked about a petroglyph on her reserve. She said a lot of elders believe the markings are a language, but no one knows how to speak it, and if you do you’re a holder of special culture and it’s your duty to pass it on.

The petroglyphs were a nice fit for Blondeau, as she’s long had an interest in rocks in her art practice, says Kristoff.  “Her photo series, asiniy iskwew (2016), which is her standing draped in red fabric on a series of large rocks, is one a lot of people will recognize.”

While Phenomena marks the end of this residency project, it’s just the start for Wanuskewin, says Kristoff.

“These residencies were funded through RBC, and now that we’re done that agreement we’re looking for future funding to bring in more artists. Our intention is to make our program the best in the world. I think a lot of artists are going to want to come here — whether they’re from or have a connection to Saskatchewan or not — simply because of what we have to offer.”

As for the exhibition’s title, Kristoff says it was inspired by the phenomenon of Wanuskewin itself.

“When you look back through the years, so many things have happened and it all had to play out perfectly, and what are the chances of that happening? It’s a phenomenal place, so it made sense to call the exhibition Phenomena. It’s an unexplainable place that we know and love.” ■