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Archive for November, 2018

You’ll have seen Benjamin Chee Chee’s iconic images on coffee mugs and calendars, but maybe not even have recognized his name in conjunction with the art itself, which makes me feel incredibly sad. This makes it even more important that Sudbury folks, and people from across the Northeast, try and get into the Art Gallery of Sudbury before next Sunday, November 18th, to see this exhibition. It covers both Gallery 1 and 2 walls, and you need to take your time to let it sink in. Don’t pass by the crucial soundscape that plays in the tiny conservatory at the foot of the stairs. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear Chee Chee’s voice, and feel his presence, then, as you walk amidst his works of art. That is the very least he is owed, given what beauty he left us.

When I arrived, I spoke to the gallery attendant. I knew I couldn’t take photos of the art, but I took photos of the text, so that I could think about what I wanted to write here. Then, a man who was looking at some prints that were for sale nearby, turned and asked me, “Do you want to know more about Ben?” Of course, this intrigued me. Turns out, this man had been friends with him. He asked me, “Do you know how he died?” I shook my head, “No, not really.” He went on. “He died in a jail cell. They say it was suicide, but many of us think differently. I was one of the pall bearers at his funeral.” It’s hard to know what to say when someone says something so bluntly to you, especially when you’ve only just introduced yourselves and shaken hands. “He was a real artist, not a businessman. He struggled through his whole life. His whole life was a journey, a deep quest for something. He started with abstract paintings, but later moved into depicting the animals. You know, he was lost.” I kept thinking, as he was telling me his story, how we are all lost, really, if we’re honest with one another. (We are rarely honest, though, and so to hear someone speak so openly about the journeys we make in life, struggling as we go, moved me a great deal.)

Chee Chee went to residential school as a child, and struggled with alcohol addiction as an adult. He tells us, in the soundscape, that the first time he tried alcohol he was eleven years old. He himself says that he lacked direction at home, that he stole things in his early teens and so was sent to what he refers to as “the training school.” Whether you call it a ‘training school,’ or a ‘reformatory school,’ what it actually was was a residential school. The damages done there are only alluded to by Chee Chee in his own voice, in the soundscape, but it is clear that he was negatively affected by abuse and racism.

His father died when he was just a baby, and his mother was largely absent when he was a child. Some say part of his drive to become a well-known painter was less about ego and a quest for artistic fame in Canada, and much more about the notion that he might somehow find her, hoping that she would hear his name and know that he was her son. (He reunited with her later in life, and they were together at the time of his death.) He died much too young, just shy of his thirty-third birthday, in an Ottawa jail cell. There has been much speculation about how he died. Some people say he committed suicide, while others imply that he encountered a violent end in a system that did not (and still does not) treat First Nations people fairly. He was Ojibway, from the Temagami Reserve at Bear River, Ontario. He was a member of the second generation of the Woodland School of painters. The soundscape speaks of how there were several artists who tried to copy the stunning work of Norval Morrisseau, but it also speaks to how Chee Chee’s work is quite distinctive. He had his own ‘voice,’ didn’t want to fashion it after anyone else’s, and it is still a style that is obviously his alone.

In the soundscape, you learn that he considered himself to be “a loner,” and that he enjoyed swimming in northern lakes. He only ever wanted to be “a modern painter.” He didn’t set out to be what he called “an Indian painter.” He said he “wanted to be an artist first.” He was drawn mostly to his abstract work. One will never be sure (because he died in 1977) whether he pushed against his culture because of how badly he was hurt at residential school, and by his troubled time as a young person. Based on what he says in the soundscape, you do get a sense that he was lost, searching for some centre that always seemed to be just beyond his reach. His frustration is clear.

In Gallery 1, you get a sense of Chee Chee as an abstract painter. There are bold colours and suggestions of forms, but nothing that you can pin meaning on in a concrete way. I could see allusions to puzzle pieces, a quasi-humanoid shape, a paisley teardrop, and maybe even the essence of an ear. (Just a note here: I’m not an artist, as I always say in these blog entries that I write about art, and I mostly let myself ‘feel’ the art in a sensual and emotional way, in a way that lets the art come into my body and sit there. It’s an embodied and poetic way of viewing art, I suppose you could say, and I’ll never say that I know very much about art beyond what I’ve researched out of my own interests.)

I’m not terribly fond of abstract art, to be honest, but I can see how Chee Chee was searching for a style and form, as all artists and writers do throughout their lives, As you move from Gallery 1 to Gallery 2, you can see how he moved from abstract forms, to more concrete ones, including some city scapes of Ottawa streets; these were the paintings he knew would sell to Ottawa folks, so he could make a bit of money there. As he said, “The kind of drawings I’m doing right now, I’m doing that because people like it and it pays my rent.” They were practical pieces, and you can sense that when you see them. He was so talented, to be able to shift between these various styles, but I am — as always — so drawn to his pieces that speak to his Northern upbringing.

As I walked through the exhibit, I thought of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and the notion of finding your ‘personal legend.’ People who journey, on spirit quests, or who retreat from the world in various ways, I think, are searching out personal truths. I think Chee Chee was doing that in his art, and I can understand that as someone who has been journeying this year with my own writing and life. They are difficult paths to walk, but perhaps necessary for artistic souls.

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The pieces that most spoke to me, as someone who hikes and spends a lot of time outdoors and in the bush, are the paintings of the animals. In 1974, he painted pieces that were later referred to as “The Animal Series.” The ones that are most well known, though, are the beautiful bird paintings that are so iconic here in Canada. In 1976, he returned to Bear Island for a bit of time, painting pieces that are now considered to be part of the “Bear Island Works” portfolio. Be sure, when you go to the Art Gallery of Sudbury this week to see the show, to take note of the ‘untitled’ piece on the staircase landing. The shadowed line of bison is stunning. Don’t rush by it! Take the time to let it sink in. It’s worth every bit of time you spend on that landing.

My favourites, and I will admit that this is because I have been taken with the beauty of birds for a long time in my life, are the bird paintings. The geese are so beautifully captured. You’ll likely recognize the iconic elegance of “Friends” (1974).

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And then there are the others, including: “Taking Flight” (1976), “In Flight” (1977), “Family in Flight” (1977), and “Together” (1977). His two paired pieces, “Father and Son” and “Mother and Son” (1977) are all the more poignant given the lack of familial connectivity with his parents. The use of gold, yellow, green, and black as his main colours are effective, especially with his elegant and simple lines. He captures, in so very few strokes, the essence of a northern landscape. Perhaps that is what has always called me to his work, as a woman who grew up as a girl, clambering over black rocks, following rabbit tracks in snow, and touching birch trees in winter. I am made up of northern landscape. It is my language, my heart, my soul. Chee Chee’s paintings feel like home to me.

Here are his beautiful birds….

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“Flying Geese,” 1974.

Whetung-CheeChee-Wait-For-Me_1024x1024.jpg“Wait for Me.”

These three give you a sense of Chee Chee’s work. Already, I can hear you going “Ohhhh, okay. I know this guy’s work.” If you’re Canadian, you know his work. And now, if you live in Sudbury, or in the Northeastern part of the province, you have a chance to see it at the Art Gallery of Sudbury.

What I most want to say, and it has been sitting inside me for two and a half days now, is that what happened to Benjamin Chee Chee, at the end of his life, is uncertain. It shouldn’t define his artistic work, by any means, but it is a concern. As I walked through the art gallery the other day, I kept thinking of another brilliant artist, Annie Pootoogook. She, too, died in a way that is unsettling. Both were too young when they died. Both were Indigenous. There is something that is wrong in this country. It didn’t start in 1977, and it hasn’t been healed yet. Pootoogook died in Ottawa in 2016, her body found in the Rideau River. Too many First Nations, Metis, and Inuit women are ending up in Canadian rivers. Endings like these, deaths that aren’t clear, only further point out how much work still needs to be done. You can’t have “reconciliation” if you don’t listen to the truth. And, it seems, ‘truth’ is so often not what we think it should be anymore. You can’t sweep these premature deaths under a proverbial carpet. You shouldn’t. But, what we can do to honour both Chee Chee and Pootoogook is to see their work, to appreciate it, and to thank them for it. Their legacies are strong ones. For all Canadians.

Benjamin Chee Chee: A Life & Legacy is on at the Art Gallery of Sudbury, on John Street, in the beautiful old Bell Mansion, until Sunday, November 18th. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm and Sunday from 12-5pm.

While you’re there, please consider buying a membership to the Gallery. It’s only $20 for a student membership, $35 for an individual, and $60 for a family. For me, it has only ever brought me great joy, contemplation, and the gift of creativity. In the North, we need to support our non-profit arts groups more and more enthusiastically as the provincial government makes cuts. For me, and I’m sure for a lot of you reading this blog, the arts are a vibrant part of the place and community within which you live and work.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

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