Renee Elizabeth Mzinegiizhigo-kwe Bedard

LauraLee interviewed for the "Honouring Anishinaabe Women's Artistic Creativity Project" in 2007

Interviewer: Renee Elizabeth Mzinegiizhigo-kwe Bedard, Anishinaabe-kwe (ojibwe) ~ Dokis First Nation, B.A., M.A., Indigenous Studies Ph.D. Candidate, Trent University

Interview Questions Guide For Anishinaabe Women doing Artistic/Creative Work:

Biographical Questions:

Let us begin by you stating your name and where you are from for the record, as well as any additional information which best describes who you are.

My name is LauraLee K. Harris. The K. stands for my maiden name Kelly and honours my departed father. I self identify as a non-status, mixed blood on my Mother's side. And I come to this Mother Earth with many parts which I feel must be recognized for my growth: these parts are Sioux, Cree, Ojibwe, Montagnais, Chippewyan, Oji-Cree, Assinaboine, French from Manitoba, English and Irish.

How long have you been a creative person or an artist?

All my life, when I could hold implements, I drew, and I painted. I was left handed but I was not allowed to draw unless I used my right hand and so now I am right handed but sometimes I use both.

When did you first learn you had creative or artistic skills?

The first time I realized that I had an ability was late one night, when I was 14, I found I could draw a portrait which to me was the moment I realized I could articulate the complex.

How would you describe the type of creativity or art you do?

I paint on plywood. Using the grains of wood as a connection to my subconscious I find imagery from its life. In a traditional sense, natural elements from Mother Earth have always been our template in our culture for the Sacred, for sustenance, for our stories. But here I'm using the grains from a slice of the inside time of a tree. Its creation defines my voice, and my work. Its life becomes a template in my mind's eye and as I process what it is giving me, I lay down transparent layers of acrylic paint creating what's inside me, based on, what's inside the tree. So my work is created with nature's template being my physical and spiritual guide. My poetry is written similar to automatic writings but inspired by Earth's Creation, First Nation's teachings and mixed in with my own personal life experiences as intellectual, and emotional guides.

Do you have a particular art piece, form of art/creativity or pieces of work that are your favorite? And could you explain that work to me? And, why it is your favorite?

My favourite pieces of work have been the ones that I learned from most profoundly after I painted them. It is this after the painting time that I search for meaning. It is this meaning that brings the work full circle when I look for the symbols and research the meaning of the work from an Indigenous perspective. I search within the tribes I've been given in my ancestry. Most of the lessons have come from my Ojibwe, Sioux and Cree backgrounds, but also the Chippewyan and Montagnais Dene wisdoms. One work that comes to mind is "Red Roads - Protection"(below).

The meanings from this painting comes from the Sioux teaching of walking the Red Road and in this sense protecting those parts of our physical walk back to our culture. The knots in the wood had imagery in them, two of which I recreated free hand; from my interpretation of the actual knots. In a Sacred way, I felt that recreating what grew naturally, meant that I had reinforced its life and meaning, I felt I was honouring the imagery from its growth.

The right knot represents Mother Earth as she spins around and the left knot represents the Hoop Dancer or the human as Creator. The hoop dancer who represents artists, dances and spins around inside the many hoops of Artist Creativity. The connection to these two Creators is in the middle knot showing an elder hunched over holding a child. This represents the carrying over of our cultural teachings from our Elders to our youth. So the third protection is the passing on to our youth of the cultural teachings held within our Elders memories. This protection would mean sustaining Mother Earth and our Culture through our very powerful Elders with Eagle as our protector and spirit guide. To me this created a powerful purposeful prayer for all of Creation: circling around Earth and culture and art which speaks to the heart, healing all races for the perpetuation of our earth, culture, and artists interconnected and dependent on each other.

Are there any other works of art from other artists that have inspired your artistic creativity? And, how has it or they inspired you?

I would say that aboriginal art works in general seem to inspire me the most, and I guess it's because I find Indigenous works to be on a deeper level, than one sees and one learns from mainstream art, as it speaks to all parts of the human being: the visual, spiritual, the heart and the mind. Most Aboriginal work, I find has meaning, which articulates all levels, as apposed to just one: the aesthetic or intellectual. Some mainstream art work is entirely intellectual or entirely aesthetic, but I love work that speaks on all four levels: spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and physically/aesthetic. For instance: Arthur Shilling, colours his portraits of his Anishnawbeg peoples vibrantly in a love tongue, that only those who understand their blood understand this language of beauty and sadness, is actually one. Randy Charboneau who passed away this year taught himself and others through his work and his life and his relationships in a powerful way. Merlin Homer's art, abstracts life into a prism of meaning, complexity, depth with light and symbols. I like the way David Maracle's work communicates on many levels through carving and music. He creates his own flutes, and I find it all speaks to the soul, through many levels; the heart, mind and eye or ear. Tannis Neilson's work, are like giant slide memories in burnt hues of her Metis family and they speak to memory. I find in Gordon Miller's works, a collage of colours, he seems to shape our history like a subconscious memory or a dream. I love Aaron Paquet's beautiful Raven's and animal totems. I find his work connects me to Mother Earth at an instinctual level. There are so many artists but not enough room here for all that impart so much of themselves into my work. My favourite author though that has inspired a sort of spirit talk is Louise Erdrich. I find her work to be profound. Also Leonard Cohen's music and poetry I love the deep shadows to his work.

How has your own creative style evolved over the years?

I started out doing portraiture, figures in oils then acrylics. I was mostly doing aesthetic work in many media and subject matter, but I felt I wanted to say more, but didn't quite know where I was going. I moved into painting on wood 11 years ago, after finding my indigenous ancestry. My inner growth has evolved as a result of that move, and as the depth of meaning of this work has evolved, so have I. My work has evolved on a spiritual level and the work has become more complex, more discerning into more meaning. I’m now exploring with other natural elements within my work like bees nests, rose petals and leaves and feathers.

Are there specific challenges, problems or difficulties raised by your artistic creativity?

I think the challenges that have occurred during the creation process, come from the place of trust of the unknown on a personal level and a physical level. There is a point in the work, after the initial burst of excitement, at seeing some phantasmagorical imagery in the wood, where I lose what I initially saw, what I initially believed in. I have to continue in this blindness, just believing that it will all become. It tests me to believe in myself and the Spiritual World to continue and search for answers like, where am I going with this and what does it want to say, and what am I saying, because I start with the wood grain and just trust that it will take me to some truth. I don't start with any preconceived ideas or plans. I let the wood progress and during this process, I wonder what it could possibly be trying to say and like automatic drawings and writings, which come from some instinctual place inside, it's also coming from this tree being and from my intellectual curiosity of wondering, how has the Creator woven His intention into this being, beyond our imaginings or understanding.

And so sometimes, I have to shut off my mind because it wants to edit and censure what it doesn't understand so early on, and I have to allow my spirit to have its freedom voice. And this is the trust that I speak of. It's a trust inside of me and the Spirit world.

How do economics or politics impact your artistic creativity? (e.g. as a business opportunity, political statements/activism). If yes or no, how so?

Traditionally, a very big part of our culture was and is giving back to our community. This is what sustained us and helped the circle grow, which was; everyone contributing to the whole. The circle of giving back can be found in the seasons, as a spring feeds from the fall's seeds and the winter's mulch, the cycle of growth continues. I chose the Anishnawbe Health of Toronto to give back, in which I contribute a portion of my sales, because of the very nature of their health program. They happen to be juxtaposed at the beginning part, of that urban circle, the place where our people are hurting the most. The many places of abuse our people have suffered, range from the residential school system, racism, child abductions, the systemic abuses of alcohol, meth, suicide are the results of hopelessness and poverty and the break down of our cultures and family. I've always requested that my donation, which is 10% of what I make in art sales, go towards healing, through tradition and culture. This also helps support our elders at the same time. This is how I raise awareness.

Do I make political statements or stage activism in my work?

The answer to that question is that I don't. I would like to move past that cycle of victim, and look for answers in healing. My work is about healing the spirit within, not focusing on the pains and forever pointing fingers that never forgive, that stay in bitterness. Holding on to that bitterness inside continues to hurt the ones who keep it, and forces them to stay in the past. Some of my earlier work does address the past as in "Reflections of 1497", "The Whisper", and "The Day The Order Changed", but for the most part, I want my work to look to ways to heal and understand and find new ways of looking at nature, as ways to refocus our energies on Mother Earth, for that will carry us through, I think. I look to the future of a strong society not the past, which does not look beyond the hurt. There is enough art work out there that addresses this, and it's good that we remember and never forget what was taken, but then, where do you go from there. The politics of treaties is unresolved, but the earth is still here, and our biggest fight should be, in keeping her well and returning to our traditions and our disappearing culture. This is the important work of healing. The wood is healing because it is part of Mother Earth. Nothing can heal our lives like Mother Earth.

My newer work focuses on healing, not only ourselves through tradition and culture, but also Mother Earth by bringing attention to her plight, standing up for her, and addressing what she gives to the hearts of all peoples, who originally did not see her in that way. She gives us a lot, in a circle of healing, from sustaining all our needs physically to the emotional and spiritual, she is a soother. So this is my way of giving back to that circle; I find we must heal our hearts so we will be strong enough to heal her. And because my work is non confrontational to anyone, especially those who had nothing to do with the past abuses, who happen to be white, or non native, they become more receptive to my message, and my work becomes a message carrier, much stronger than confrontational art, that rallies between guilt and blame and then stops there. Rather it is more a message directed art, bringing a more profound inner and earth related connection to the heart. I never forget what has happened to us and our culture and our land, but that memory is reinforced by the very mention of the needed healing.

Are there any specific teachers, mentors or Elders who taught you artistic creative skills? Who were they and how did they impact your artistic creative style?

The only mentor/teacher/Elder I can think of is Joe Mcleod of the Maslac Mcleod Gallery. He didn't impact my artistic creative style, but he did encourage it and he spent the time, when I first approached his gallery for representation, which although he didn't grant me, he did offer me a starting point, with one piece, in his gallery that I could add to my resume, he gave me advise on how to make it in the art world and spent time teaching me what was necessary to be successful in the art world: he told me to create and have shows and try all the galleries and then create some more and never ever stop. And I remember those words each and every time I am tired. I get up and start some more because I know it's hard; his words stayed with me. I also think my dad was another one who taught me how to work really hard and a lot of who I am is because of him.

Do you mentor or teach others the creative skills, styles, or knowledge you know or use? If so, explain this relationship(s)? If yes, why do you do this?

I am. I am teaching and mentoring a lot of young teens at this time. I am currently mentoring a couple of young boys to continue their education. One is a 20 year old who is a writer/journalist but just needs someone to believe in him. I am finding that I really enjoy these teens and summer aged kids; their spontaneity and approach to life and openness is exciting to me and so they are more respondent. Also my work was recently studied by two grade 9 classes at a Catholic High School; St Theresa of Lisseau in Richmond Hill. I was their Canadian Artist segment of their studies. Their teacher had them do power point presentations amongst other studies of my life, they each did a painting on wood and a piece of poetry to go with it. This is the third year she's had her students study my work. Two years ago it was with the Grade 11 Classes. So I went to the school and spoke to the classes; two classes of 25 students each. I was so blown away with their work but also with my speaking ability. I didn't realize till then, that I loved talking to these young beginners of life. I am inspired by the positive impression I could make on their lives, teaching some of the healing messages of Mother Earth. I gave them two teachings to help them with their ages and found them very interested in these stories, and even though this was their last day of school for the summer, the teacher said, they didn’t want to miss my visit. So I think all their studying of my work and doing it themselves had an impact.

One story I gave them, was about the Medicine Wheel and where they fit in to the wheel of life: the teaching of the South and the Emotions and the other was the Creation Story about how we know what we were meant to do before being born, when we are in Spirit form, what problems we would encounter before we're born. How people and problems and situations are set before us to understand about ourselves and that we know all of this before we are born, but we forgot when we are born becoming the physical form and our earth journey is meant to find that way.

For a long while, I've thought that my ultimate goal when my husband could retire or maybe before, if we can get away is to teach my art and poetry style to First Nations teens up North. I believe it is a healing work. Because my art work is entirely unique and carries a healing, I'd also like to open a school teaching this style/technique, passing the methods of this work on to my Aboriginal community.

I continually teach and mentor along life's way. I believe in encouragement and giving back creating positive circles. I did a portfolio workshop teaching other Indigenous artists the power of an Artist Statement in London at Nokee Kwe in 2005. This was a highly productive experience for the artist's self esteem. I saw how most artists did not have the opportunity to hear positive descriptions of their work by their peers. The purpose of this exercise was to help artist's find words that most aptly described their work as most artist's are too close to their work emotionally to take an unbiased look. I asked each artist to bring one sample of their work. I had the seats form a circle and I presented each artist's work to the circle of artist's and asked to hear positive adjectives describing the work so the artist could write down all the great words that their peers had for their work. This did three things: 1. It helped them define their art giving more arsenal to use when describing it for marketing purposes, 2. It encouraged them to believe in themselves because others educated in the forms of creation saw good things in their work, 3. It encouraged their voice when they saw how their art affected others to speak and saw how their art had a voice.

Does family impact your artistic creativity? If yes or no, how so?

My family is very supportive of what I do: my husband and my two boys now 19 and 16 promote and support me in many ways that promote my work above any other typically women's work in the home. I stay at home but if I have artwork deadlines, they support that above all else. Many of my paintings are about the special relationship of mother and child. My children have had a profound effect on my life and thus my art. My husband is my rock and my biggest fan and my framer and so having men around has brought a balance to my life, I never before had.

Does spirituality or your culture impact your artistic creativity? If yes or no, how so?

Spirituality and my culture are the underpinnings to the meaning of my work. The spirit of the tree relates to my subconscious spirit like a dream does and connects through what I paint and how I perceive what I've painted, into words. I research the symbols and images from my respective cultures to understand and learn and grow inside, which further feeds my work, like a circle of Creation and growth on many levels.

Research Related Queries:

Do you consider your artistic creativity to be Indigenous (i.e. First Nations, Native, Indian, Aboriginal)?


Is there a particular way you would describe Anishinaabe women's artistic creativity?

I would describe Anishinaabe Women's artistic creativity as balanced, with heart and mind in a mix of community and family, personal experience and traditional knowledge, grounded and connected to Mother Earth's circle of life and family in the Sacredness of the Creator.

Are there specific elements to Anishinaabe women's artistic creativity that make it distinct from male Anishinaabe artistic creativity?

I think women and family and community are the underpinnings to a woman's heart. Her emotional freedom and her ability to speak it and then create life is different to a man's. The profound effect of birthing children and the connection of this to the cycles of Mother Earth and Grandmother Moon and her tides and her cycles, her moontime is a connection that a man would not know or understand on this level. There is a sensitivity to an Anishinaabe's women's art. I think that is why traditional Anishinaabe women's work consisted of flowers and geometric shapes but now are more nurture oriented and that could be because the earth and our people are suffering.

How is Anishinaabe women's artistic creativity distinct from non-Anishinaabe art?

I think the main difference from Anishinaabe and non-Anishinaabe art is our connection to Mother Earth and the personal and spiritual meaning she has made in our life and our deep respect for her is valued in our the way we honour her in our work. I'm speaking of traditional work, and some contemporary. The non-Anishinaabe women's art does not often speak on all four levels as the Anishinaabe's work does.

Is there differences between women's and men's creativity/art?

Sometimes but I notice a lot of the woodland artists are men and their work is centred on the spirituality of the Mother Earth and her Creatures. In the mainstream, I don't find that much difference in gender to their work.

Where does Anishinaabe artistic creativity come from?

I think Anishinaabe artistic creativity is initiated spiritually from the Earth and all her creations and from the Creator as a gift to us humans. And some are inspired by the past abuses and sarcastically portray that bitterness out in their work, sometimes bordering on racism, so in this case, it comes from an inner need to vent, to get their voice heard or to make a statement. It comes from those places of imbalance.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Well further to that last thought, I think that the bitterness that is projected from the art that wants to radically inform, or make statements from the past, that border on racism and bitterness only continually hurts our progress as a Nation to heal. I would like to see more art work that addresses answers to healing, that brings awareness through ways of envisioning the healing of our society. Those thought processes haven't been explored as much as I think they could be, to make a difference within our communities. A different way of addressing issues that engages and connects rather than alienates. I notice people just go away with a bitter taste in their mouth and that's all, rather than engaging thought into action.

Chi Meegwetch!!!