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Teaching and Making Meaningful Art for Reconciliation

The BACK STORY- I had the pleasure of staying at my campsite along the shores of Koocanusa lake most of this summer. While I was away, local fibre artist Amanda Tanner was working in the art studio at TraXside Studios. Amanda asked me in June if she could use the space to work on a large installation. Naturally I was thrilled to have another artist in the space, creating while I was away.

In the last few weeks of our spring classes, I knew Amanda was up to something with a community weaving project. My students and I created woven pieces with yarn to contribute to it. At that time we didn't realize the full significance of the project- likely Amanda did not yet either. What began as a community project to get people weaving, has turned into a powerful collaborative art installation about First Nations appreciation and reconciliation for residential schools and mistreatment of indigenous people.

The WHY- Like many of us, when the news headlines read about the mass unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada, Amanda was driven to do something. She decided put her artistic talents to work beginning the Reconciliation Project. A couple of months later, she along with Siksika elder Shirley Hill and other members of the community -both First Nations and others- have created a gorgeous fabric art and woven piece to wrap the main gate posts in our local George Lane Park in High River for the month of September. My future art students here at the studio will also create small pieces to attach to this installation in the month of September, using driftwood and natural items I have collected from the Koocanusa area.

As I was enjoying the natural environment of lake Koocanusa, Amanda was tirelessly working with beautiful orange fabric, adding small and large adornments made by herself, community members, and even some of my students from my June art classes. I could see the progress from my security cameras in the studio, from my place at the lake, and was amazed at the growth of the piece over time. The abundance of the symbolic orange colour was stunning from the camera view! Amanda and I texted back and forth frequently about the project and I decided that driftwood would be appropriate as it is natural, found in abundance at my campsite, and will represent the connection to the land and nature that the First Nations people cherish.

The IMPORTANCE OF THIS ART. WHY get involved? - For me, there are two reasons. The first being that I want to be a part of reconciliation and healing. I confess I did not know until recent months, the extent of the evils that occurred at residential schools. I did not know that the purpose of these schools was to change the culture of the people attending, in order to assimilate them with white society. I was previously ignorant to the fact that this was occurring while I myself was in school!

I was a little hesitant to become involved with the art project at first, because I am not of indigenous descent. I didn't know what or how I could contribute in a culturally sensitive way. Then I realized that I too am Canadian. I am a parent, with empathy. I am an artist, and I have a voice. I care about acknowledging and reconciling past injustices. I care about the children and parents, and all of whom were mistreated by the residential school system. To Reconcile, by definition, means to "restore friendly relations." I don't need to be indigenous to want to foster friendly relations with those who are of First Nations descent. I want to listen, and I want to understand. I want to show my sadness, empathize with theirs, and encourage healing for all. I can use my power as an artist to do this. Just as Amanda began this project, I will contribute to it, and I will encourage my students to do so as well.

This brings me to the second reason why I need to do this. When I began thinking deeper on this subject, I also thought about ART and the power of creating art with meaning. Is this something I should bring to my art students? Absolutely yes, I believe so. I think it's of utmost importance for students of any age to know that they have a voice. That voice can manifest in speaking, or it can be shown visually in the art we make. Art is sometimes made for the purpose of adorning walls and beautifying spaces, and sometimes it's made to stimulate a response in its viewers. This project has meaning, and seeing it in its grand position upon the trees in the park is powerful. The installed pieces are absolutely beautiful. The artwork can be appreciated it for its aesthetic qualities, as well as its deep meaning. The orange is vibrant, the ribbon dresses sewn into the fabric are gorgeous. The feather shapes and woven pieces are intricate and colourful. The little dress that glitters is both pretty and sad, as it represents a child. Every piece has been carefully and considerately created, and symbolizes the people to whom it is a tribute. Artists have been adding smaller handmade pieces on to the sides and fringe of the artwork. I want my art students to be a part of this, and to understand what it represents. We will create painted and decorated wooden pieces that will be added to the edges, and hung beside the central exhibit. In this way, we will be adding our own feelings and personal experiences to the collective piece. My own connection to Koocanusa will be included, as well as my emotional empathy and desire for healing. My students will bring their own knowledge, histories and emotions into their work. We will create beautiful pieces, and with them we will show that we want to understand, help, and contribute to reconciliation by showcasing the art we make from pieces of nature and our own hands.

I hope everyone who reads this will stop by to appreciate the installation in George Lane Park. I also encourage anyone who wants to (and Amanda Tanner does as well), to contribute their own art pieces to the outskirts of the central piece. In doing so, we will demonstrate our caring for this cause, and the piece will grow with community. This is one way in which we can use the power of visual art.

TraXside Studios is an art, dance and wellness studio in Blackie, AB. Christi Tims is the writer of this blog, and director of the studio. TraXside Studios serves Foothills County, Blackie, Vulcan, High River, and surrounding areas with art classes, dance classes and fitness and wellness. We educate in arts and wellness for all ages. If you would like to be part of the aforementioned art classes or Reconciliation Project, please contact the studio and we will get you registered. September art classes will contribute to the Community Reconciliation Art Project. Registered and drop in art Classes begin September 13.

For more information on the Reconciliation Art Project and Amanda Tanner's work, visit The Venue, High River.

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