Kaska artist Mary Caesar may be better known in Europe than in the Yukon.
Three times travelled, many weeks toured and with a book published in Germany, Caesar has observed that people in Europe seem more interested in First Nations culture and history than many Canadians.
Some say that Europeans have a longer and deeper sense of art history than North Americans. Caesar’s work is not a comfortable fit within the current contemporary art world in Canada — her paintings are filled with story and historical narrative.
“There’s no medium Mary hasn’t worked in during her decades-long career as an artist,” said Arts Underground curator Amy Kenny.
“She’s a painter, a beader, a jeweller, a sewer, a poet and more. No matter what medium she’s working in though, she is, above all, a storyteller. As a curator, that’s the primary thing I like to see in a show — narrative. A sense of story.”
Caesar’s current exhibition, A Retrospective of My Journey, runs until May 28 in the Focus Gallery at Arts Underground. In the smaller Edge Gallery is Julie Cottle’s exhibition, titled Elevated Ground.
The opening for both exhibitions happened on May 5. With 40 or 50 people present at one time, Kenny said, it was the largest gathering seen in the gallery since the pandemic.
Caesar grew up in Upper Liard, where she still lives today. Steeped in tradition and story as a small child, she was torn from her family and sent to the residential school in Lower Post, British Columbia. The scars and the trauma from that experience remain, and have shaped who she is today.
“I believe as a survivor; I have a responsibility to tell my story.” She likens her story to the stories she heard in Germany from the Holocaust survivors. They inspired her to be open and share her story. “It is part of Canadian history that should not be forgotten.”
Caesar recalls how at residential school, she would watch the boys sketching landscapes to distract themselves, and she started doing that as well, but the nuns took her drawings away. Even then, she said, “I knew I was going to survive to tell my story and art was a a way for me to survive, to heal.”
Later, as a teenager she would escape with books and poetry, such as the works of Leonard Cohen and Chief Dan George. She always admired different woman artists like Emily Carr and Frida Kahlo, but her residential school trauma led her to alcohol abuse.
In 1991, she quit drinking. She started writing and returned to her traditional arts and stories. In 1993, she went to Tsow-Tun Le Lum treatment centre in B.C., and fully embraced her healing journey. It was there that she saw a brochure for a college art program. In 1998 she was accepted into the art program at Malaspina College, now the University of Vancouver Island, and started the next fall. She names the mentors that helped ready her portfolio for acceptance — Sherry Bowers and Jean Gleason from Watson Lake.
Out at school, Caesar studied painting, sculpture, print-making, drawing and photography. She married the western forms with the Indigenous storytelling forms of her family. She calls her father a master storyteller. Sewing and beading she learned from her mother.
In 2005, Caesar was one of 10 Yukon First Nation artists invited to travel to Switzerland for an exhibition. It was there that she started talking about her residential school experiences. The respect and interest shown by the European audiences encouraged her to open up. It was there that she found purpose to write.
Five years later she was invited to Germany with Dennis Shorty and Mark Preston, and again felt the interest and appreciation of their German hosts. There she met a publisher who wanted to create a book of her art and poems.
In 2014, TraumFanger Verlag Hohenthann published Caesar’s book of her poems and paintings in German. In 2018, it was published in English. The book, titled My Healing Journey: Survival in the Residential School, is available at Arts Underground alongside the exhibit.
Kenny is very pleased that Arts Underground is able to hold this exhibit.
“The stories Mary is sharing in this exhibition are as varied as her work. Some are proud and joyful; others are really difficult to hear; all of them are important.”
Contact Lawrie Crawford at email@example.com