Robert Amos: Art of innocence in dark times

• The Truth is Here, Legacy Art Gallery, 630 Yates St., 250-721-6562, legacy.uvic.ca, open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

 

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robertamos.jpgThe Truth is Here: Creativity and Resilience in Children’s Art from Indian Residential and Day Schools — that’s a long title for a complex and profoundly interesting installation at the University of Victoria’s downtown Legacy Gallery.

This children’s art is “a record of their creativity and resilience through what was all too often a daily struggle to survive,” according to curator Andrea Walsh. Each of the many sections of the exhibition tells the story of a community reconnecting with this art.

During the dark days in our province’s history, Indigenous children were taken from their parents and sent to residential schools, to be forcibly assimilated and become “proper” citizens of the colonial power. The last residential school closed in 1996, and by that time, more than 150,000 children had been uprooted and given into the care of government- and church-appointed teachers.

“The paintings by the children, and the often surprising stories they tell, compel us to keep witnessing the effects on their young lives, and not to do it from the safety of numbers and statistics taken off a website,” Walsh told me. “We open ourselves to a different knowledge when we stand and look at their art.”

In a few schools, art materials were provided, and in rare instances the youngsters took the opportunity to express how they felt. Almost miraculously, some of their creations were preserved and later discovered.

In her 17 years of engagement with art from the residential schools and day schools, Walsh has seen how this art “allows us to honour individual children, where names were lost and numbers were ascribed.”

People who were forgotten have now been found through their paintings. “That’s my auntie, that’s my grandmother. I didn’t know that about her,” relatives from the present generations exclaim, and reconnections happen.

A child’s painting of an empty beach or a girl looking out a window can tell us about the “assimilation” experience.

“It’s not just through statistics, or the important work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the necessary and critical harsh look at colonial records,” Walsh told me.

“The beautiful moments of ‘aha’ can come through the simple pressure of a brush stroke or the choice of a colour.”

Making my way through this extensive show, what first attracted me was a two-minute film made at the official opening of Thunderbird Park in May 1941 by Clifford Carl, then director of the Provincial Museum in Victoria.

These flickering images show children from Inkameep Day School dressed in buckskin costumes and papier-mâché animal masks, presenting their families’ timeless stories with a measured self-confidence. Somehow, the costumes, which their parents sewed, the children’s drawings of their trip to Victoria and even their teacher’s moccasins have been preserved.

This exhibit also includes students’ spirited drawings of the dance as they presented it before an audience of thousands. These children were pupils in a one-room day school at Oliver, and were taught by Anthony Walsh, an inspired teacher who subsequently sent their artwork for display to the Royal Drawing Society in England.

“We fall quickly to thinking that children’s art is simplified,” Walsh noted. “But there is deep knowledge in these paintings. There are instances where we can see these kids carrying genealogical, territorial and linguistic knowledge.”

A contemporary newspaper story from Oliver tells of students between the ages of five and 10, gathered under the name Can-oos-sez Players, taking their place on the stage with the gravity of much older storytellers.

Another part of the show presents drawings of Kwagiulth totemic motifs, drawn with great care by children at the St. Michael’s Indian Day and Residential school in Alert Bay between 1940 and 1969. These were created as part of a plan to introduce native designs into handicrafts, promoted by the B. C. Society for the Furtherance of Indian Arts and Crafts.

“They were lobbying for more technical and commercial design programs in the residential schools, ultimately to fuel a tourist trade and economic development,” Walsh explained.

The young artists are not named, but by studying their various representations of the whale and thunderbird, it is possible to imagine the young hands and hearts that made them, and to touch a tenuous but unbroken lineage that goes back millennia. Accompanying photos show the demolition of the residential school at Alert Bay half a century later, an occasion celebrated by costumed drummers and elders.

Port Alberni’s school was a place of terror and sadness for many of the resident students, but for a few years one of the teachers, Robert Aller, opened a window of expression. Aller was a trained artist and taught his pupils how, not what, they could do with art in his program. Aller saved many of their paintings and, through the encouragement of Martin Segger, these came to the University of Victoria, where later they opened the eyes of anthropologist Walsh.

With a heartfelt advocacy, Walsh has been reconnecting these art works, and those from other schools, with the people who made them and their families. The paintings have already been exhibited in a growing number of communities and at important events such as the meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Victoria.

The ripples of an innocent and powerful energy live on and spread wide, speaking truths across the years.

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