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Three artists, three work spaces, one river

Chu Niikwän Artist Residency wrapped up Sept. 15, exhibit scheduled for November
Meshell Melvin sews Chinook salmon for her Chu Niikwän Artist Residency at the Old Fire Hall on Sept. 6. Her work is inspired by the importance of the salmon’s role in the natural world. Melvin’s finished piece will be part of an exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre community gallery starting Nov. 7. (Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre)

Work by three artists, completed in three workspaces all connected by one river will be highlighted in an upcoming show at the Yukon Arts Centre Community Gallery.

The trio were part of the three-week Chu Niikwän Artist Residency which wrapped up its second year Sept. 15. An exhibit is slated for November.

The residency is a partnership between the Yukon Arts Centre, Yukon Art Society and the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre.

It began in 2018 out of a desire by the groups to work together on an initiative incorporating the spaces they each have near the Yukon River (Chu Niikwän in Southern Tutchone), Yukon Arts Centre director of visual arts Mary Bradshaw said Sept. 9.

The KDCC has its culture cabins along the river near the start of Front Street, the Yukon Arts Centre has the Old Fire Hall on Front Street near Main Street and the Yukon Art Society has Arts Underground on Main Street near Third Avenue.

As Heather Steinhagen, executive director at Arts Underground, said Sept. 10 there are not a lot of residency opportunities for artists in the Yukon. This program — which began under the leadership of former Arts Underground executive director Courtney Holmes — aims to provide that opportunity.

The 2018 inaugural residency proved a success with artists Blake Lepine, Lia Fabre-Dimsdale and Nicole Bauberger’s work showcased in an exhibit just after the residency portion of the program ended. Rebecca Manias and Katie Newman were the curators for the 2018 program.

“It was more of a pilot,” Bradshaw said.

It was clear following the 2018 program that the residency was a success, but more time was needed to put the exhibit together.

“That was rushed,” Bradshaw said.

Hence in 2019, officials opted to take a couple of months between the end of the residency and the exhibit opening.

This year Meshell Melvin was selected as the advanced artist to work out of the Yukon Arts Centre’s Old Fire Hall with Shirley Adamson selected as the Indigenous advanced artist working out of KDCC and Talia Woodland as the emerging artist to be based out of Arts Underground.

Karly Leonard is working as the emerging curator in residence.

Each bring a unique background to the residency, Bradshaw said.

Melvin has been a professional artist for nearly 30 years working in drawing, printing, painting, animation, collage and embroidery. She’s also well-known for teaching art in the territory.

Melvin said Sept. 10 it was a rare opportunity to spend three weeks focused on a project around the Yukon River that prompted her to apply for the residency.

The Old Fire Hall is a beautiful space to work, she said, adding the ceiling height gives the building a “true sense of space”.

“It’s such a beautiful space,” she said.

There, she has spread out materials over seven eight-foot tables to produce nearly 400 embroidered Chinook salmon out of a “cross-pollination of textiles” over the three-week period.

The salmon will be displayed along the walls of the exhibit in November, though Melvin is still working on the finer details for how they will be hung. Essentially, she said, they will appear as if you’re looking across the water watching the salmon swim.

She proposed the project after looking at all the Yukon River provides with the salmon being such an integral part of that.

It’s the salmon that feed animals, people and the nearby forests, she said.

“The big circle of life is so apparent.”

Like many Yukoners, Melvin said she’s feeling the stress of climate change and this project has given her a place to put that energy.

Woodland was chosen as the emerging artist, though as Bradshaw pointed out Woodland’s name is already familiar to many Yukoners who have been to the Created At The Canyon exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre. It features a video Woodland worked on with the Borealis Soul performances group she is part of.

Woodland is also a graduate of the Humber College film and television production program, where she was awarded the 2019 Women in Film Award.

Woodland said in an email that the residency represents a chance to practice and focus on a project in the territory as well as meeting other Yukon artists and having her film and dance work showcased as part of the exhibit.

Her project will feature footage of her growing up in the Yukon compiled into short stories.

She described it as “an ode to the land of the Yukon. I had such a good time growing up on the land here, but climate change is going to really change it for future generations.”

Videos will be projected during the exhibit with Woodland delivering her message that people need to think about how land is used.

She said she hopes those who take in the exhibit come away thinking about their impact on the environment and land, how it’s changing, what the future will look like and what people will do about it.

A well-known Indigenous artist who creates under the name of Zahra, Adamson has taken on a number of roles over the years in the territory, ranging from positions with the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, as former grand chief of of the Council of Yukon First Nations, positions with Northern Native Broadcasting, Aboriginal People’s Television Network, Northern Vision Development, and Yukon Hospital Corporation among others.

“She’s a pillar in our community,” Bradshaw said.

Adamson uses paints, canvasses, found objects, bones, feathers, glass beads and hides in her artwork, it’s highlighted on the Yukon Art Society webpage.

“By blending Indigenous and contemporary mediums and styles her pieces convey a powerful message of cultural change,” it’s stated.

Finally, curator Leonard has a master of arts in information studies from McGill University and a bachelor of arts in urban studies from Concordia University in addition to studying art history abroad. She currently works as project archivist for the audio recording inventory project at Northern Native Broadcasting.

Bradshaw is hopeful those who have a chance to stop by the open studio hours each artist is offering get “a little peek” into the extensive behind-the-scenes work that goes into artwork, as well as getting a look at themes that emerge along the Yukon River.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at

Stephanie Waddell

About the Author: Stephanie Waddell

I joined Black Press in 2019 as a reporter for the Yukon News, becoming editor in February 2023.
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