We sat down with the Indigenous Artist-in-Residence, Dawn Marie Marchand, to learn more about her, her role, her work as an artist, and the women who have impacted her life. She is a member of the Cold Lake First Nation and a Cree and Métis Artist. As an artist in residence with the Indigenous Relations office at City of Edmonton, she will spend the next year creating a body of work and researching influential Indigenous people from this territory.
Dawn Marie is a student of the Boreal Forest Institute for the Indigenous arts, a published author, and educator. Her advocacy work, mentioned in the interview below, draws on her talents as an artist and educator and includes mentoring youth.
Women’s Initiative: Having an Indigenous artist in residence at the City of Edmonton who is specifically focusing on Indigenous topics and issues is a first for the City. Can you share a bit more about what this is and what your role is?
Dawn Marie: I am with the City and am working towards a body of work that will be presented [publicly], and they’ve given me the opportunity to talk and paint about Indigenous issues. It’s one of the first times that an artist in residence has been hosted through the Indigenous Relations Office. Which means I get to focus on Indigenous history, oral history, and contemporary issues within my artwork.
Women’s Initiative: Part of what the Women’s Initiative does is we like to understand how women have been supported by other women in their lives. Can you share with us a woman or women who have impacted your life or your work?
Dawn Marie: Oh wow.
Women’s Initiative: There might be lots. It’s a tough question.
Dawn Marie: I’m sitting there going, “Oh my gosh, there’s so many.”
Obviously I want to give thanks to women who like my mother who gave me the tools to be able to express myself, taught me how to debate, how to research, how to tell stories and things like that, so you want to give her props because really she taught me how to stand up for myself.
And then, of course, you want to talk about your elders. I’m very blessed to know many, many elders. And I’ve been helped immensely by Joanne Saddleback, who has been one of my mentors through this process. Mary Cardinal Collins who was one of my mentors and teachers for many years as a language learner, so I wanna obviously pick those two out.
Artistic influences, there’s three women that really stand out to me. One would be Joane Cardinal Schubert who was an incredible mixed media artist. She did so many different things. Jane Ash Poitras taught me how to collage and obviously I still work within the collage medium, so I can’t not say that she hasn’t been a serious influence on my artwork. And Rebecca Belmore, whose amazing and subtle work speaks very, very strongly. Goes straight to the heart. I was lucky to know all three women when I was just learning how to draw, so very, very lucky to have spent any amount of time with them. Even if it was just a short amount of time, because it really influenced my artwork today.
Of course being a mother, I give props to my daughter. She’s had issues with social anxiety and depression and learning to help her, learning to give her tools, is giving me tools, so I’ve learned a lot from being a parent.
And so when I talk about the women in my life, there’s so many, I’m so supported. I’m so grateful for the women I have in my life. Both the ones that I mentor, because they teach me in that process as much as learn from them, but also from those that taught me how to draw, how to paint, how to navigate this world as an Indigenous woman.
Women’s Initiative: What does being an Indigenous Artist-in-Residence mean to you?
Dawn Marie: It’s a responsibility. It came up on me in kind of a roundabout way that really was quite surprising. I wasn’t expecting it and it took me a little while to come to grips with the knowledge that I was going to be quite out there. I really liked being under the radar a little bit and I didn’t really like being in the mainstream so much, and I didn’t like so many people having so much access to me. I really wasn’t prepared for that. I didn’t just jump on it, I thought about it and I was like, it’s a responsibility and I’m grateful to be the first because I have that opportunity to maybe push or start conversations that normally wouldn’t be started and have the opportunity to speak to others, speak to things that maybe I might not have had the opportunity before, and to include more people. To really challenge some of the established ideas about what is and what is not art, even in our own community.
Women’s Initiative: This connects with some things we’ve touched on already, do you see this role as a continuation of some of the advocacy work that you were doing?
Dawn Marie: No, not so much, well, yes and no, but the artwork is going to speak for itself. I have this idea and I don’t know why, but the advocacy part is me, there’s part of me that’s going to flow through that, but my legacy will not be the advocacy. My legacy will be the artwork. And how I approach advocacy and how I approach the artwork are sometimes in very different places. So before I touch the canvas I really want to make sure that I’m in a good space. Whereas sometimes within the advocacy you can speak out of turn or say something in anger, but I can’t do that with a canvas. It’s just not my teaching. And so although I’ll be speaking about some things that are a little bit difficult, there won’t be the same trying to instill, trying to change anybody’s opinion. It’s going to be, this is just my truth. It’ll be very different. The artwork allows me the opportunity to [get to] spaces where I can advocate a little bit more, but ultimately, the art will remain. It doesn’t matter really – what I have to say will remain in the art and how it’s presented through the art.
Women’s Initiative: You mentioned the process of being in a good place when you touch a canvas. Can you describe what creating is like for you?
Dawn Marie: I honestly believe that artists have this ability to tap into, it’s called the third space, or another place. I believe that lots of people have that opportunity to tap into that creative energy. And you see it when people start writing and then they are just gone for hours and people start drawing and they’re gone for hours and some people create music and they’re gone for hours. And that’s, I believe, that’s a sacred space. As an artist, I’m blessed in the sense that I can tap into that sacred space. If I allow myself to go in there in a good way, I can really pull out some beauty. I was given some advice early in my career, I was told, you can tell an ugly story with your art, but you can’t make ugly art, because nobody’s going to hang ugly over their couch. That was a very pragmatic teacher that I had back then. He taught me it’s really important that art be beautiful, that it be pleasing. That you can tell an ugly story without necessarily creating an ugly image and that’s what I stand by, so when I do art, when I try to make art, that’s where I’m going. that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to get into that place of telling an ugly story in a beautiful way.
Women’s Initiative: What takeaways do you have for people in Edmonton as they view your work?
Dawn Marie: I want them to have a much stronger grounding in the oral history of this territory first. Recognize that this territory has all of these beautiful things that are already just part of it and that we don’t need to necessarily over-complicate it. And then I also want them to recognize that the Indigenous History, the more contemporary history that is of this Edmonton area has always been groundbreaking. Edmonton has been the hub of some of the most groundbreaking work that has happened in Indigenous advocacy so we have an Indigenous history, a contemporary Indigenous history that we can really be proud of. And I want to bring that forward as well.
Women’s Initiative: What do you want women artists, particularly Indigenous artists, to know just generally about creating art and getting out there?
Dawn Marie: One thing I want young Indigenous artists or female artists to know is that there’s space, there’s room for everyone. There’s sometimes this binary where it’s like you have to be super traditional, you have to adhere to all of these images and stuff like that and that your work needs to look Indigenous. Then there’s this other binary where it’s all about the contemporary, and I don’t believe that it’s as one or the other as we think it is, or as much as it’s been constructed to be. I think our women need to go in between those spaces and accept that we’re all on this continuum and there’s room for all of it and it’s all beautiful and it’s all okay. It’s when we start trying to judge each other’s work and try to do what other people are doing without actually going through that process that they’ve had. Like some of the work that I do, I’ve had to do through ceremony. And then I see somebody be really inspired by that and try to do that without the ceremony and then it loses something in that. So you have to be willing to recognize that there are certain things you do have to go through. There may be places where you do need to go for protocol. There might be places where you don’t, but that’s the journey and we have enough room for all the voices in it.
Women’s Initiative: Is there anything else you’d just like to share or you’d like us to know?
Dawn Marie: I think honestly, that considering my advocacy and some of the things I’ve spoken about and for, it’s been very brave of the City of Edmonton to pick me and I really appreciate it. I really do. It’s really quite admirable that the City has taken me on, supported me, and given me this opportunity to experience what it’s like to have a studio, to have the materials that you need to create the work which is quite refreshing and it’s been a win-win.
Dawn Marie will hold a final exhibition for the completion of her residency. The Women’s Initiative will share the details of that when more information is available.