Robyn McLeod was in the mountains when she got the news, meaning she didn’t have cell reception or a landline to make or take a call.
Instead, the recent graduate of the Yukon School of Visual Arts had to be told via email that she had been crowned the Yukon winner of the 2019 BMO 1st Art! Competition, an annual event that sees judges pick out the top works of art students from across the country.
“It was pretty funny,” McLeod said in an interview Aug. 15 about how she found out she’d won the $7,500 regional prize for the Yukon.
“… I’m really, really proud. I’m really happy that I won. I feel a lot of gratitude, because I had competed against other people from my school who are very, very talented.”
A Dene artist originally from Fort Providence, N.W.T., McLeod combined traditional and modern techniques and art forms to create her piece, Dene Futurisms.
The display features a pair of mukluks made with home-tanned moose hide and adorned with beading, cloth flowers, wolverine fur and porcupine quills. Mounted on the wall behind them are eight prints featuring surreal, digitally-created juxtapositions — mainly, black-and-white archival photos of people laid on top of space-themed, colourful backgrounds.
“It’s hard to describe my art process but like, I’m Dene from N.W.T. and I’m really trying to revitalize, like, my culture and like my language and traditional art practices, and sometimes that can be really hard for an Indigenous person,” she said.
McLeod explained that for her, creating art is part of reclaiming her culture, with Dene Futurisms exploring whether practices that have been ongoing for thousands of years will continue on into the future.
“Things like climate change and, you know, animals disappearing … things like that kind of scare me and you worry about, ‘Oh, are my children, are my grandchildren going to still be able to eat caribou in the future, or tan hides and stuff like that?’” she said.
McLeod made the mukluks for her partner using materials gathered from her family and community — for example, the material at the tops of the mukluks came from her partner’s late mother, while the flowers adorning them are based on a pattern drawn by her grandmother and gifted to her by her parents.
Meanwhile, the photos McLeod used for the digital prints were largely taken in the Northwest Territories’ Dehcho region, where McLeod is from.
“Often, they don’t have names written (with the photos). They’re unidentified, you know?” she said. “But (the captions) say where they’re from, so these could be people that I’m probably related to, people that are an ancestor of mine, a relative, so I thought it was kind of nice to be able to bring that back to life in a sense.”
The two components were originally meant to be two separate artworks, McLeod said — she comes from a beading and clothes-making background, but wanted to enhance her digital-art skills in school — until her teachers “connected the dots” for her in terms of how similar the pieces were in their spirit and theme.
“Pairing (the mukluks) with the digital art pieces kind of made sense because the digital images are kind of like more space-y and futuristic, but paired with traditional messages of the past,” she said.
McLeod said she felt grateful that her work has now been recognized.
“I feel really validated in my art practice because I’ve worked very, very hard to the point where, like, I had problems with my hands a lot … they were so sore because I worked so hard, so it feels really good that my work wasn’t in vain,” she said before laughing.
The process of creating the piece also taught her to appreciate her hands more, she added.
“It was all my fine motor skills, it was all my hands and I realized how important my hands are to me … I need them for everything in my art process.”
Dene Futurisms, along with the work of the 12 other regional winners and the national winner, will be displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto from Nov. 21 to Dec. 16.
The University of Manitoba’s Luther Konadu was the competition’s national winner this year with Figure as Index (Triptych), a collection of black-and-white C-prints.
Contact Jackie Hong at email@example.com