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"Pebbles on the Beach"
Daphne Odjig, "Pebbles on the Beach," 1980, acrylic on canvas, 40” x 32”.
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Daphne Odjig, "Pow-Wow Dancer," 1978, serigraph on paper, AP, 57.3 cm x 57.3 cm.
DAPHNE ODJIG: Homage
A member of the so-called "Indian Group of Seven," Daphne Odjig helped open doors for First Nations art in Canada.
By Brian Brennan
Native artists were largely excluded from Canada’s mainstream art community when Daphne Odjig began exhibiting in the late 1960s. The art establishment took the position that Aboriginal art amounted to little more than a quaint crafts culture that should remain forever housed in anthropology museums and souvenir shops.
Métis artist Duke Redbird puts it bluntly: “First Nations’ art was relegated to second-class, and dismissed as primitive and naive. It was deemed dangerous and pagan by the smug and repressive regimes of Indian Affairs, the government and the churches.”
Odjig was part of a vocal and active Native community that changed this prevailing attitude forever. A self-taught artist from the Wikwemikong reserve on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island, she and a group of fellow Natives — including Ontario Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau and Alberta Chipewyan painter Alex Janvier — helped develop the first truly modern Canadian art. Unlike the Group of Seven or the Regina Five, who developed art based on styles imported from Europe or the United States, the so-called “Indian Group of Seven” — which included Jackson Beardy, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez and Eddy Cobiness, as well as Odjig, Morrisseau and Janvier — looked to their communities for their imagery and style. “It was really North American art,” says Janvier. “Everything you saw was from here, from our own background.”
Odjig’s background was defined by a childhood in which making art was as natural as eating or sleeping. “I was born with a paintbrush in my hand,” she likes to say. “Art was just a thing that you did.” Her Ojibwa grandfather, Jonas Odjig, was a gravestone carver who took up painting in his later years. “He was my first mentor.” Her Odawa and Pottawatomie father, Dominic Odjig, painted scenes from the First World War, in which he had served as an infantryman. Her English war bride mother, the former Joyce Peachey of Upper Norwood, did fine embroidery for church vestments and altar covers. “Art was always a part of our lives,” says Daphne. “But I never thought it would ever amount to a career.”
Odjig left the reserve at age 19 in 1938, following the death of her ailing mother, and lived in Parry Sound for four years before moving to Toronto. Doing shift work at both the John Inglis gun factory and at Planter’s Peanuts prevented her from taking classes at the Ontario College of Art, so she taught herself to paint in oils by studying the techniques of the French Impressionists and other artists on display at the Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Toronto (now Ontario).
At the end of the Second World War, Odjig married a returning RCAF veteran, Paul Somerville. They started a strawberry farm near Chilliwack, British Columbia. When Somerville was killed in a car accident in 1960, Odjig moved to Vancouver with her 12-year-old son, Stanley, and threw herself into her painting. “Painting was the only thing I felt sure in. It was a part of me, so I would naturally fall back on it.”
In 1962, Odjig married Vancouver psychiatric nurse Chester Beavon. Two years later, they moved to northern Manitoba, where Beavon worked as a community development officer on reserves and Odjig produced a series of paintings based on the Anishinabe legends she had learned as a child. Three years after that, in 1967, she had her first solo exhibition, at the Lakehead Art Centre in Thunder Bay. Her second solo show, in 1968, was at Brandon University in Manitoba. Wider exposure followed in 1970 when her work was displayed in the Canadian Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. A visitor to the Expo show was Pablo Picasso, who reportedly looked at Odjig’s cubist work and asked, “Who is the Picasso in the room?” In the years following, Morrisseau jokingly referred to Odjig as “Picasso’s mother.”
During the early 1970s, Beavon and Odjig lived in Winnipeg, where they opened the first Canadian art gallery devoted to Native art. “We had nobody to regularly show our work, so we had to do it ourselves,” she explains. “I think we opened the doors and opened the eyes of the public a bit.” The gallery became a magnet for fellow Native artists who, like the original Group of Seven, created an art expressing their own form of national identity. The National Museum of Man (now Civilization) took notice and, in 1977, it commissioned Odjig to paint a massive 2.5 x 8-metre canvas, The Indian in Transition, to hang in the lobby of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. “A huge project like that, I never dreamed I would ever do,” she says. “If my mother could only have lived to see what her little girl did, she would have been so proud of me.”
Beavon and Odjig moved back to British Columbia in the late 1970s, and settled in a house built on the shores of Shuswap Lake, where Odjig produced an impressive body of work that was displayed in galleries across Canada, as well as in the United States, Europe, Israel and Japan. Formal recognition for her artistic achievements came in the form of two honorary doctorates, the Order of Canada, and a membership in the exclusive Royal Canadian Academy of Art. Canada Post issued a Christmas stamp of her painting, Genesis. Playwright Alanis King commemorated her life and work in a Native Earth Performing Arts production, The Artshow. Her most coveted recognition came in the form of an eagle feather given to her by the chief of the Wikwemikong reserve, where she had grown up. “This was an honour previously reserved for men in recognition of excellence in hunting or war,” she says.
In recent years, Beavon and Odjig have been living in a Penticton townhouse to be close to medical treatment. Beavon has undergone a heart bypass and Odjig suffers from diverticulitis, an intestinal problem. Now 85, she is still producing new work, though not as prolifically as in the past, when she sometimes had two shows a year to prepare for. “That’s how our parents brought us up.”
As it so happens, Odjig does have two shows on view this year, both in Kamloops, BC, and both featuring works that she created in the past. Daphne Odjig: Four Decades of Prints, the Kamloops Art Gallery’s (KAG) major exhibition for 2005, is a collection of 90 original lithographs and silkscreen serigraphs. As well as being seen at the KAG, from May 29 to August 21, the show may also tour nationally. “It’s long overdue,” says Jann Bailey, KAG director and curator. “We have the largest collection of her print works in Canada, and so we felt it was important for us to do this show.” Morgan Wood, who wrote a catalogue essay for the KAG exhibition, describes Odjig as “one of Canada’s artistic geniuses and a national treasure. Her awe-inspiring artistic practice is unique and filled with wonderment.”
The second Kamloops show is at the Hampton Gallery from June 18 to 30, and features as many as 40 of Odjig’s works, including serigraphs and posters.
Daphne Odjig is represented by Hampton Gallery, Kamloops, Hambleton Galleries in Kelowna, Edmonton’s Bearclaw Gallery, Wah-sa Gallery in Winnipeg, Gallery Gevik in Toronto, Gallery Phillip in Don Mills, and the Whetung Ojibwa Centre on the Curve Lake Indian Reserve in Ontario’s Kawartha region.
Brian Brennan is the author, most recently, of Romancing the Rockies: Mountaineers, Missionaries, Marilyn & More, published by Fifth House Ltd. His profiles of Western Canada’s distinguished senior artists appear regularly in Galleries West.