Ruth Cuthand, at home in Saskatoon. PHOTO: Liam Richards
Ruth Cuthand's Trading series puts the legacy of historic colonial commerce under a microscope.
BY: Patricia Dawn Robertson
Ruth Cuthand describes a recent crisis of faith she had about her art practice. “Was this really just a hobby?” she thought. “Was I turning my art into an expensive hobby? That was the issue I wrestled with in my 50s. Then the idea for the Trading project came up.”
The project brought her critical acclaim and curatorial validation, but she’s always had the respect of her peers. Curator and fellow Saskatchewan artist David Garneau calls Cuthand a “quiet master.”
“I appreciate the way she balances off the comic with the aesthetic. Ruth takes a lot of care with her work,” says Garneau. This summer, the work will be a key part of To Be Reckoned With..., an exhibition of contemporary Aboriginal art from the collection of Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery.
The Plains Cree artist was born in Prince Albert and holds a BFA and an MFA from the University of Saskatchewan. In addition to her innovative art practice, says Garneau, Cuthand has made an enormous impact on young artists in her role as a teacher. “Ruth is approachable, she doesn’t have a big ego and her students love that. She most definitely has a big following here after teaching fine art at First Nations University of Canada in Saskatoon for 25 years,” he says. Yet even after all of these years of study, teaching and studio work, she still grapples with self-doubt.
The MacKenzie didn’t have the same doubts. The new work was so well-received that some of theTrading works were bought by the gallery for their permanent collection. With the assistance of a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts 2009 York Wilson Endowment Award, the gallery bought six of the 11 Trading works, created in 2008 and 2009. It was a demonstration of financial and curatorial support for her work, the shot in the arm her career needed.
“In these mixed-media paintings the viruses are rendered in beads as seen in microscopic scans while the name of the corresponding disease is painted, stencil-like, in white acrylic paint below on a black suede-like surface,” the Canada Council described the Trading works in announcing the Award. “In these hauntingly beautiful images Cuthand condenses with great eloquence the terrible exchange which saw glass beads traded for epidemics of disease, beauty for destruction, and in later times medical knowledge for cultural understanding.”
Cuthand describes the beads as a “visual reference to colonization. Valuable furs were traded for inexpensive beads. On the plains, beads were a valuable trade item and they replaced the method of using porcupine quills. The series examines both sides of European trade, which brought new items that revolutionized Aboriginal life...the downside was the decimation of many tribes through disease, which quickly spread, arriving even before Europeans.”
“Ruth’s work is just beautiful,” says MacKenzie Art Gallery assistant curator Michelle LaVallee. (LaVallee spearheaded the acquisition of the Trading series works.) “I would love to own one myself.”
LaVallee appreciates the clever manner in which Cuthand uses traditional materials in a contemporary setting. “Ruth’s work is so unexpected. It makes the viewer question what they’re seeing.”
The series had its genesis in the classroom. Cuthand was teaching traditional Indigenous methods, including beadwork, and she resisted teaching it like a craft. So she decided to subvert the materials and use them like paint. The idea jumped over from school into her art practice at home.
“I was ordering beads off the internet. Boxes and boxes of beads started arriving on the doorstep. I spread them out in the living room and thought: look at all the colours! When the traders first arrived with beads the Indian women must have been so excited. Just like I was. I mean, quillwork is so intensive. They must have just grabbed onto them.”
This inspired Cuthand, and she moved tangentially from the bead topic to the impact of Indigenous trade with Europeans. “I did an Internet search for the viruses, and they were just gorgeous to look at. These abstract images brought me my ‘aha moment.’ Holy smoke. Let’s do these images in beads.”
Cuthand beaded the diseases in the way they appear in the microscope lens, mounted on black suede, with the names of the viruses included underneath. They’re beautiful, muticoloured, seemingly innocuous spots of typhoid fever, bubonic plague, measles, small pox, chicken pox and whooping cough.
“As onlookers get a closer look at the work, they read the disease’s name and understand it’s actually a germ that killed people,” Cuthand explains. Her studio practice currently focuses entirely on her beadwork projects. Her next bead-disease series follows in the same vein. She’ll depict diseases like tuberculosis and polio — mostly eradicated in the first world, but still alive on Canada’s reserves.
“Diseases are beautiful,” says Cuthand, as she contemplates the aesthetics of her subject matter. “An idea for something like this will often come to me slowly at first. I can be circling something for months, upside down and sideways, then it finally comes forth.”
Because of her temperament and her role as a teacher, Cuthand has always had an evolving practice. She’s worked in paint, printmaking, drawing (Misuse is Abuse), Polaroid (Indian Portraits, Late 20th Century) and now beads.
“I just don’t practice the European ideal of perfecting the one thing. It doesn’t apply to me. I guess I’m A.D.D. or curious. I need to learn new skills so I’m never bored.”