Tag Archives: Native Art

Celebrating Native Artists’ Visions

12 May
"October" by Sydney Kirkness

“October” by Sydney Kirkness

In the image created for the month of October, Sydney Kirkness paints a sturdy lone bull elk against a scene rich with fall colours—a foreground of gold, salmon, orange, and rust with a sprinkling of falling leaves leading to the blue spruce and pine of the forest. In the latter part of the year, the life cycle enters maturity for which the elk is a fitting animal representative, the essence of noble strength and stamina that brings us far in life. Above the warm fall colours, Sydney paints the cool blues, suggestive of oncoming winter, emphasized by the black silhouettes of geese flying south for the winter.

"November" by Sydney Kirkess

“November” by Sydney Kirkess

For November, Sydney brings the viewer into oncoming winter with a cool palette, all shades of blue from the deep blue of the towering forest pine to the white-blue of the snowy landscape. The only warm colour is in the deer’s reddish winter coat and in tan tufts of grass about to be covered over in the driving snow. The scene seems to be just before the ice forms, the trees reflected in the last of the frosty open water. The deer, alert, caught in the moment, looks ready to head for the cover of the forest.

"December" by Sydney Kirkness

“December” by Sydney Kirkness

The last image, created by Sydney for December, shows an absence of animal life in the world of wintery slumber. Sydney paints the scene in the cool blues, as the blanket of snow covers the earth. The band of sky above the forest is a pastel purple, adding depth to the quiet scene. Life hibernates, as the year comes to a close. The circular form of the image reminds us that the seasons are cyclical and that the whole pattern will begin again.

Such are the wonderful images painted by Sydney Kirkness and Moses Bignell for the staff and generations of students of Joe A. Ross School in The Pas, Manitoba. During my Artist in the Schools visit, I was fortunate to pass by these paintings over the course of two weeks as I taught. I feel honoured to have had the chance to reflect on the fine work of these wise and talented native artists’ and to celebrate the gifts their paintings continue to bring to viewers.


Native Artist Sydney Kirkness

4 May

I return with enthusiasm to my discussion of the fine art and career of Native artist Sydney Kirkness, whose paintings I discovered during my Artists in the Schools residency at Joe A. Ross School. A close reading of his paintings reveals the mystery of creation at work and a mature artist at ease with composition, colour, and spiritual symbolism.

"January" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“January” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

In the image he created for January, Sydney employs a delicate sense of movement as the wings of the realistically rendered Snowy Owl follow the circular shape. The subtle, pale colours and cool palette contribute to the sense of the lonely and lovely depths of winter, while the owl reminds us that life and the hunt that is necessary for survival go on all year. As well, from a mythical perspective, the owl is a liminal bird who exists at the threshold between one world and another, between one year and the next, a visionary being who sees into the past and forward into the future. Behind the owl, we see the vast stretch of snow and the edge of the snow-covered forest. As a keen observer of the natural world, Sydney paints the white orb of the sun surrounded by an ice halo, otherwise known of as a nimbus, icebow, or gloriole, a phenomena produced by ice crystals or ice diamonds in very cold weather. A circle within a circle within a circle…

"February" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“February” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

February in Manitoba’s north is a frigid month. Sydney paints a spirit face that reminds the viewer of the ancestors, those who have gone before, who have become part of the land on which they once tread. Or the face might be Old Man Winter, winter being the time of the year associated with old age. Again, Sydney employs the subtle pastel palette with a representational perspective. There is a mist before the forest, a natural phenomena created by the warmth of the rising sun on the cold air, emphasizing spiritual presence.

"March" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“March” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

For the month of March, Sydney chooses an earthy, vibrant palette of warm colours, deep oranges, browns and blacks in the background that leads to the white orb of the sun at the centre, all of which emphasizes the return of the sun and warmth to the Northern Hemisphere. The swirling movement of the two beautifully rendered eagles is created as Sydney paints the eagles in such a way that they (and the viewer’s gaze) follow the circle in a spiraling spiritual flight toward the sun, toward the sacred centre, toward the unknown spiritual Great Mystery at the heart of all life.

Discussing the evolution of Sydney Kirkness’s art, writer Andrea Geary in “Arborg business owner promotes talents of local artists” outlines how Sydney serendipitously brought art in for framing to Sylvia Gislason, who then went on to become his agent, promoting his work in a career that “snowballed,” with his work selling nationally and internationally. He sold up to one hundred paintings a year.

Sydney and Agnes Kirkness met in 1977. They married and raised a family together; Agnes watched her husband’s career evolve. As Agnes Kirkness confirmed in her 2013 conversation with me, Sydney liked to paint at night when the children were in bed and the household was quiet, painting into the wee hours. He painted from nature and his dreams. Agnes recalled that he would say to her “I can see the picture already,” and he would go on to give her a description, but Agnes let me know that she couldn’t visualize what Sydney saw in his mind’s eye. “I don’t have that talent,” she added, with humour. “But my grand-daughter does!”

In my next entry, I will conclude this blog sequence with musings on the last months of the year, as painted by Sydney Kirkness…

The Sacred Circle

1 Dec
"April" by Moses Bignell

“April” by Moses Bignell

When I saw that the paintings done by Sydney Kirkness and Moses Bignell were circular, a favorite passage from Black Elk Speaks, first published in 1932, came back to me. Before I carry on with Sydney Kirkness’s story, I wish to draw readers into the compelling and beautiful world view implied by the circle. As Black Elk tells us:

“You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living centre of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance….”

"May" by Moses Bignell

“May” by Moses Bignell

Black Elk continues: “This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours….”

"June" by Moses Bignell

“June” by Moses Bignell

Black Elk explains further: “The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were….”

"July" by Moses Bignell

“July” by Moses Bignell

Black Elk reveals more to his listeners: “The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children (Black Elk Speaks, as told through John G. Neihardt, a Bison Book, University of Nebraska, 194-196).”

"August" by Moses Bignell

“August” by Moses Bignell

Walking through Joe A. Ross School every day, as I proceeded to classrooms to teach students, I was gently affected by the circles of the seasons, created by the two native artists, Moses Bignell and Sydney Kirkness. The children of the school, whether they think consciously about the art or not, are likewise affected. As I read onward in the articles about Sydney Kirkness’s art, I found that once he returned to his path and to the creation of art, he also returned to the culture that had been taken from him. Journalist Jim Mosher pointed out that Sydney now saw “art as a medium to communicate that heritage to others, aboriginal youth in particular (The Interlake Spectator, Dec. 12, 1994).” Every day, students take in the vision of their cultural heritage.

"September" by Moses Bignell

“September” by Moses Bignell

All of the above images, of April, May, June, July, August, September, are the beautifully rendered work of Moses Bignell. Like Black Elk, he honours the changing seasons. I note the ties at the edge of the circles in April and June, like the ties of the drum that delivers the heartbeat of Mother Earth. In April, the geese come flying back, while snow lies on the ground. In May, the pond comes to life, and frogs swim again. From roots in the earth come flowers, and the generative force is in action. By June, geese are nesting, and into their circular nests comes the new life that is evident in July, where baby loons swim with their parents in the watery world. Moses paints August with an enigmatic symbolism, a goose with the sun at its heart, the sacred circular centre, the vibrant life of summer, around which leaves circle. September, and the greenery of summer begins the transition into fall colours, burgundies, rusts, browns, tans, while the moose, the big animals, traverse the rugged terrain. Such are the gifts that Moses Bignell brings to students and staff at Joe A. Ross school.

In my next entry, I will carry on with what I learned from reading on the art of Sydney Kirkness….

Beautiful Spiritual Murals by Native Artists

30 Nov
"January" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“January” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

Sometimes we find ourselves touched in a profound way by the work of another artist. During the two weeks I taught in Joe A. Ross School, I had such an experience.

The school is shaped like an eagle, with wings outstretched for young learners to take flight. The hallways are structured off of a central square area and each of the four hallways is decorated with three large circular paintings that represent the spiritual transition of the months. Every day, as I entered the school, I walked past January, February, March….

"February" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“February” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

I found myself affected by the art, absorbed into the artists’ dreams. The images made me feel connected to the land surrounding the school as well as to a spiritual vision of our human place in nature. I was busy with teaching young students, but finally, in the staffroom, I asked the questions that had come to mind. Who was the artist, Sydney Kirkness, who signed the paintings back in 1991? Some of the paintings were unsigned. Were those Sydney’s paintings too, or was there another artist? I was told the unsigned paintings were done by a very fine artist, Moses Bignell.

"September" by Moses Bignell

“September” by Moses Bignell

A kindly man, Pat Young, said, “If you want to know about Sydney Kirkness’s art, ask Agnes Kirkness, the painter’s wife. Sydney passed away two years ago. She’s over at the Otineka Mall.” The next day—my last day at the school, I was able to go over. I found Agnes, a beautiful woman with a soulful face, having lunch with family in the food court. I explained that I was visiting Joe A. Ross School for Artists in the Schools and had become interested in her husband’s art. She told me I’d been teaching her grand-daughter who had an artistic gift too. Later, when I knew which girl she meant, Cynthia Halcrow, I was delighted to realize I’d already spoken to Cynthia about her gift, noting a subtle confidence and charm in her illustrations.

Cynthia and Tricia, two wonderful artists

Cynthia and Tricia, two wonderful artists

Agnes kindly said she’d meet me back at the school at the end of the day, with articles on Sydney, so I would understand his work more. That night, in the little cottage on Clearwater Lake in which I was staying, I read the articles before sleep. Outside the cottage was the dark of night and the rippling blue lake while inside, I put on a fire in the wood-burning stove and I read about artist, Sydney Kirkness. As I pieced together his story, my understanding of North deepened.

"March" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“March” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

As a child, Sydney was taken away from his family to be taught in the Birtle Indian Residential School, a tragedy experienced by Native Canadians until 1996. In an article, “Native artist reclaims his heritage,” by Jim Mosher, Sydney is quoted as saying “When I attended boarding school I lost my culture, my language, my native teachings.” Even so, at thirteen, a charcoal landscape won Sydney his first ribbon in the school art contest, and he realized that he might have a career in art.

Evening Comes to Clearwater Lake as I Read Onward

Evening Comes to Clearwater Lake as I Read Onward

In 1969, he ended up walking away from his art after graduating with a certificate from the Banff School of Fine Arts. “I just gave up…because my feelings were hurt,” Kirkness said in an interview, “I paint what I feel and when that’s destroyed, my painting is destroyed (“James Risdon, “New art techniques challenge Kirkness”). Sydney left art and drifted for ten years, during a desolate and lonely time. “I just felt empty without painting…I felt useless.” Then he returned to the place of his birth, Koostatak. “I had been lonesome. I wanted to return to my roots. (Interlake Spectator, Dec. 12, 1994)

Reading by the Wood Stove

Reading by the Wood Stove

As I sat in my cabin by the light of the fire, reading those words, I felt so moved. Such was the experience of the big-hearted man, Sydney Kirkness, who painted the beautiful spiritual murals I had walked past every day for the past two weeks. I could relate to his temperament. As so many artists have experienced, deep hurt can trigger self-denial and denial of one’s art and can create a perversion of one’s creative path. Sydney wandered lonely and broken for ten years. But the Good Red Road is always there, waiting for the traveller to return, and luckily, Sydney returned to his artistic path, a joy that I will delve into tomorrow….