Artist Jessie Buchanan Reflects on her Completed Cross-Canada Journey
October 23, 2017
by Jessie Buchanan
For me, ART EXPRESS’D was connected to the changing landscape of Canada. As a First Nations artist and art therapist, I viewed this project as important because I believe in the power that art has to transcend and unite cultures. Specifically, art creation has been used not only to heal, but has also proved to lend visibility to individual and collective voices. All of the communities I visited were northern Canadian communities, and with our country being the size it is, I think this project is a way for these communities to be heard and represented in the south. So in a way, I view ART EXPRESS’D (and my container exhibit, entitled Voices of the Landscape), as a way to bridge the distance between communities and have new conversations. What I learned from this experience is that no matter where you go in Canada, there are always people who are willing to help. When faced with challenges, I felt very supported by the participants and locals at each stop. I was offered volunteers, help with organizing participants, and even invited over for dinner!
The spirit of Canada 150 was about national pride and transparency, in positive ways and in a spirit of honesty. The celebration of Confederation was received ambiguously in the places I stopped; in many of the indigenous communities I visited I found people had different, sometimes opposing, views of Canada 150. In fact, it is difficult to summarize how people ‘as a whole’ felt about the ‘Canada 150’ thing. Generally speaking, everyone I spoke to was very proud to be Canadian, and almost everyone who came out to the workshops was very enthusiastic. At the same time, there was definitely a sense that there were both positives and negatives when considering the past 150 years and how things currently stand in Canada. I was very interested in ART EXPRESS’D being a vehicle for participants to use their voices to represent how they feel about Canada 150, and so some of the artwork is political in nature. With this being said, most participants used the artwork as a way to show pride, regardless of background, social-economic status, or gender. Pride not only in Canada, but also pride of traditional ancestry, lifestyle and connection to the landscape.
There was so much about the journey that was exciting, but I would have to say that being able to travel across northern Canada was the highlight of it all. I realized that there are many similarities between northern communities, (midnight sun, fireweed, short spruce trees or tundra) but also many differences. The differences are interesting to me, and are what kept me excited at each community I visited. For example, I didn’t realize there were so many different groups of Inuit people and Indigenous people in the north, who all have their own unique languages and traditions. Getting to meet the wonderful people in each location was something that I will take with me always.
Driving the Dempster highway from Inuvik to Whitehorse with my driver, Kevin, in a 22-wheel semi, pulling the ART EXPRESS’D art studio was one of the biggest highlights for me. The Dempster Highway is a must see because you drive through both the Richardson and Tombstone mountain ranges. We had a blast! When we arrived in Whitehorse the shipping container-transformed-art-studio was a mess! It was completely covered in all the dust and mud from the Dempster Highway. We spent a solid afternoon power washing it before the day of my first workshop at the Yukon Arts Centre. Again, I should say that each of the communities I visited had amazing people who came out and participated in the project. I can’t say enough good things about the kind and wise people that I met along the way (and hopefully I will stay in touch with many of them). That’s another highlight for me.
There was this sweet, young girl, October, who came out every day in Inuvik. She would ride her bike over and meet me almost every morning (before school— remember, this was the beginning of June), even if it was just to say hi, but she usually wanted to stick around. She did the most beautiful painting of a sunset. For some reason, we just connected. I often wonder what she’s up to way up there in
Inuvik, and I hope to see her again someday. In some ways, people like October are one of the main reason I decided to take part in this project: I thought that if I can inspire even one person along the way, then it would be worth it. And the funny thing is that October (and many others along the way) wound up inspiring me in ways I hadn’t even anticipated!
This experience has definitely changed my previous perceptions of Canada. I realized how diverse and welcoming our northern neighbours are. In some ways this country is divided between the vast majority to who live in the southern areas, and those whose lives are lived in the immensity of the north. It can be easy to forget both the wisdom and the hardships of living in the north. For many of these communities, what food there is must be flown in or hunted from the land; the prices of ‘fresh’ produce, or in some cases of accommodations, are extremely high. Also, in many ways our northern neighbours are the people who feel the seismic shifts of a changing climate. I just think it’s something that we ‘southerners’ need to remember: these northern people are up there and they deserve our attention. Before going up on the project I definitely didn’t know how much wisdom and beauty and hardship went into life in the north.
I would like to thank the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Government of Canada, for this wonderful, once in a lifetime opportunity. I will always be very grateful for this opportunity as it has forever changed me. There are too many people to name here, but each of the people I met during my journey has made an impact on my life and how I see the world. This country is vast but also full of closeness. We are separated by long distances and yet we rely on each other every day. I feel privileged and honored that I’ve been able to paint and laugh and learn in places that most people do not get the chance to go. In June, during a CBC interview, I was asked what Canada 150 meant for me. I replied then that Canada 150 was ‘truth and reconciliation’. I still feel the same way now: we live in the best country in the world, but in order to make it even better we need to make sure everyone is included as we move forward. We need to be honest about the wounds of the past and the pain of the present, but if we do the hard work, we just might be able to create a future together that brings reconciliation and togetherness. Even though we are all different, we are still one. I feel like northern Canada will always be a place I will return to!