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Circle Mound & The Mush Hole Project

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It has been more than a year after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, which included 94 Calls to Action to address the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, was published. It seems that little has changed. We now gear up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, a hugely colonial celebration hot on the heels of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations. The Art Gallery of Guelph (AGG), with over 40 years of developing strong relationships with First Nations artists, felt that it was important to undertake significant projects where they could first take part in a conversation about the issues raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and build a legitimate platform to bridge the conversation to Canada’s 150th celebration.

With this in mind, Dawn Owen, Curator of Contemporary Art at the AGG, commissioned local artist Don Russell to create the 39th permanent installation in the Donald Forster Sculpture Park. Owen and Russell envisioned a land work that would create the framework for a different type of engagement and experience in the sculpture park.

Don Russell grew up in the bayside community of Stephenville, Newfoundland. He identifies as Mi’kmaq (Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation, Newfoundland) and Acadian French. Russell lives and works in Cambridge, Ontario and maintains a studio at Boarding House Arts in downtown Guelph. Leaving Newfoundland greatly influenced Russell and instilled a deep connection with the land, which Russell explores through painting and sculpture.

Creating the Circle Mound was very process-based and developed slowly through numerous maquetes. Circle Mound has a central elevated mound and its burms, the raised mounds that extend from the centre to circle the main mound and reference the two rivers that flow through Guelph, draw the viewer in. The mounds are covered with long, plush grass, which leads up the mound to a ring of dark earth and dry-laid limestone stone, in the centre of which is a rich red clay circle.

The limestone was reclaimed from the Petrie Building in downtown Guelph. Russell noted, “The stone has an interesting story, as stone always does.” He chose each piece, which was shaped and dry-laid by a craftsman. Many of the limestone pieces are slightly blackened from fire, some were shaped for their previous uses, but all show signs of their previous lives before being returned to the earth as a part of Circle Mound.

Russell explained that he wanted to acknowledge and pay tribute to the history of the indigenous people in the region, while keeping the work accessible to the nonindigenous community. The circle is an important symbol for many First Nation peoples, speaking to concepts of time and spirituality. The installation will become a place for the community to gather. Russell noted, “Within the circle of the mound there is an intimacy, it’s a contemplative space.” Russell has worked to create a place where the community can connect with one another and the earth.

At the same time that the Circle Mound project began to develop, Owen and the AGG were approached to take part in The Mush Hole Project, an immersive, site-specific art and performance installation event. The Mush Hole Project takes place at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, which was previously the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School. ‘The project aims to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action and to preserve, query, and reveal the complex personal, political, and public narratives around Canada’s residential school system.’


Sculpture in progress Don Russell


Through the development of the project the parallels between the AGG, previously the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, and the Woodland Cultural Centre, previously the Mohawk Institute, were striking. The Mohawk Institute was the oldest residential school in Ontario. The two previous iterations of the building burnt down through its history and what stands now was built in 1904, the same year that the Macdonald Stewart building was constructed as the Macdonald Consolidated School. The two buildings share a similar red brick façade, white column porch, and almost identical footprints.

However, one was crafted for the systematic assimilation of the First Nations peoples, while the other was, in effect, one of the first public schools in Ontario. The children at the Macdonald School were not removed from their families and communities; they were not disenfranchised from their culture, or told the languages they spoke were unacceptable.

The parallel histories continued, as the Mohawk Institute was closed in the 1970s to become the Woodland Cultural Centre, the Macdonald School was closed and repurposed into an art gallery. Both organizations have come to identify art as a priority for their communities and are now working together to make The Mush Hole Project a reality.

The Mush Hole Project has been embraced as a place to begin an important conversation around Truth and Reconciliation and the horrors of residential schools. Art has the power to explore these complex issues in a way that educates, acknowledges, and sets the stage for contemporary dialogue. It creates a place to give indigenous and nonindigenous people access, agency, and a voice in the conversation around Truth and Reconciliation and residential schools.

Through The Mush Hole Project a framework is created to continue conversations and continue building on Truth and Reconciliation while turning to the future. Moving into Canada’s 150th, Owen feels, “We can be critical and celebratory at the same time.”

Guelph is a community ready to face the challenges of these complex issues. Owen notes, “I think Guelph will embrace these ideas and then help to shape the next phase … We don’t know what the journey will be, but we’ve built a platform on which the conversation can happen.”

Circle Mound will be unveiled at the Art Gallery of Guelph on Thursday, September 15 at 7 pm, more information here. The unveiling of the sculpture will also launch the Mush Hole Project. The Mush Hole Project is an immersive, site-specific art and performance installation event taking place at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford on September 16, 17 and 18, 2016. Find more information about The Mush Hole Project and to register for a tour here. Free bus transportation will be available from the University of Waterloo & Art Gallery of Guelph.

Jessie Buchanan - Artist Profile

Jessie with Georgian Bay Sunset Resized

Jessie Buchanan is a painter currently living and working in Guelph. Originally from Caledon, Ontario, Jessie was born to a proud Ojibwe mother and a Scottish-Irish father. Her mother instilled a love for their heritage, but Jessie began to truly connect with her culture when she moved north of Sault Ste. Marie to study at Algoma University.

There, she began to take classes on First Nations history and immerse herself in the culture and strong indigenous community. Since the age of 13, Jessie has been painting and further exploring her culture, which naturally began to inform her artwork.

Recently, Jessie completed her Masters equivalency in Art Therapy. Her thesis was inspired by the role that art played in articulating her identity as she developed as an artist and a member of an indigenous community. Her work focused on art therapy as a healing tool in aboriginal communities and contexts. Jessie feels that art is a tool for exploring your cultural identity regardless of your heritage.

Jessie’s paintings present an openness to the viewer by working to strike a balance between reviving tradition and creating new cultural forms, without taking away from the expression of her lived experience in the artwork. She notes a struggle to articulate herself as a mix-heritage aboriginal woman, walking the line between being informed by the indigenous context and experiencing her culture in a uniquely personal way.

Currently working on several projects, Jessie is preparing a new series of works that explore Guelph and Elora, which will be exhibited in the Elora Chamber of Commerce this October. She has recently begun accepting commissions on an ongoing basis, donating a portion of the proceeds to the nonprofit organization Art for Aid, which sends art supplies to First Nations youth and artists in isolated communities. Jessie also has an ongoing exhibition of work at Agawa Bay Visitor Centre at Lake Superior, a place of great importance for her.

Jessie explains that a strong connection to nature and place, her urban environment, and the people around her have influenced her work, saying that she feels grounded by her community. She explained that the community in Guelph has been extremely open and welcoming since she first arrived, both in the creative and indigenous communities. Jessie expresses hope that indigenous and nonindigenous people can look at her work and feel a desire to express themselves and begin conversations through art.

Find out more about Jessie here


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SenseLabs Unearths the World

By Sarah Goldrup

SenseLabs is a project designed by Musagetes, an international organization that works to make art more central and meaningful to individual, community, and societal life. SenseLabs are research projects in which people work with artists to collaboratively explore their connection to place and landscape.

The seeds for SenseLabs were planted in June 2011 with a project called Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Dutch artist Bik Van der Pol cleaned a sample of rock in Sudbury, which had been blackened by the mining and smelting processes that have transformed that landscape. Through this act Van der Pol highlighted our impact, the history present, and our responsibility to the landscape. Inspired by the unique setting and musical community of Sudbury, a concert bus series was created. Musicians performed on blackened pieces of rock creating new experiences and discovery in a previously familiar landscape. http://musagetes.ca/project/betweenarock/

The first SenseLabs took place May 2014 in Lethbridge, Alberta, where the urban landscape was juxtaposed to the distant backdrop of the Rockies. Montreal-based artist Jean-François Prost led the collective in a project titled Situations & Conditions. The group explored interesting, neglected, contested, and unused spaces, transforming sites with their presence and social interactions as well as a 20-metre length of red fabric. Through this project they explored their connection to place and the role of art in our experiences. http://musagetes.ca/project/the-lethbridge-senselabs/


The upcoming iteration of SenseLabs will take place at rare Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge. rare is an international leader in conservation, research, restoration, and education, protecting a network of natural landscapes held in trust for our community. For Musagetes the project not only has the possibility of being the foundation for a long-term relationship with rare but also with local indigenous communities. SenseLabs is an opportunity for indigenous and nonindigenous artists to connect and collaborate in a meaningful way. SenseLabs will explore the importance of place and landscape through art. http://musagetes.ca/news/senselabs-call-participants/

Elwood Jimmy, Program Coordinator at Musagetes said, “We’re optimistic about the project and I think that, working with the artists that we’ve chosen, we’ll be able to draw out some really amazing histories, narratives, and connections to the site over the course of the three months.”

Gabriella Caruso and Ange Loft will lead the project. Both have extensive experience working collaboratively with communities, as well as the history of the site/region, and traditional & customary practices in relation to the land. Jimmy explained, “We would love to have a core group of people that’s representative of the region, indigenous, nonindigenous and people from other communities, communities of colour. People coming together and really wanting to work, collaborate, and learn about each other and our connections to the land. There is opportunity to be really immersed in the landscape that we are learning about, its flora and fauna and the natural elements. For those who want to participate it will be really enriching on many levels.”

Musagetes, through the SenseLabs project, is working to explore the transformative and reconciliatory power of the arts through our connection to place and landscape. On the role of Musagetes in the project Jimmy noted, “We’re trying to build bridges between communities as well. We’re in a time in Canada right now where there is so much dialogue and discussion around Reconciliation and these larger issues and challenges. So, if we can contribute to bridging some of those gaps, then we are really happy.”

To learn more about the call and upcoming SenseLabs click here: http://musagetes.ca/news/senselabs-call-participants/

Daniel Robinson 2015 Jane Graham Memorial Award Recipient

Daniel Robinson, last year’s recipient of the Jane Graham Memorial Award, is the embodiment of Nestor, a 62-minute film that he created entirely alone, filling all roles from pre-production, filming, to post. The synopsis of Nestor on its IMDb page describes the film as following the struggle of ‘a man who has awoken alone in a remote, abandoned village. With only vague memories of his surroundings, the man relies on his instincts and creativity to discover his purpose and survive the crippling isolation.’

Stemming from a life-long mission to create a feature-length film, the practical constraints that Robinson faced in making his goal a reality shaped the vision for Nestor. “Knowing that I was going to do something very small, I just decided to do it as small as possible and do it by myself where I’m very comfortable,” Robinson explained. “I knew I could work alone for as long as I needed to. And the genesis of the story just kind of took off from there.”

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Without much need for a traditional script (there is almost no dialogue in the film), Robinson began with an outline for scenes. He continued to develop and uncover story elements as he made and edited the film. The result is a quiet but complex work that Robinson refers to as his “little film.”

Creating the film constantly tested Robinson’s knowledge, skill, and equipment. Doing things alone meant taking on “all the little jobs that come with filmmaking,” while using only “rudimentary equipment” to create the work. While overcoming the learning curve, he noted, “The filming of it was easier than most things. The hardest was sound. Sound is extremely hard. Even when you have a crew, doing sound properly is very, very difficult. So I had to really test the limits of my knowledge to get good sound on each individual scene.” For Nestor, trial and error was part of Robinson’s process.

The work was filmed near Nestor Falls, which gave the film its name. The township in Northern Ontario holds a special significance for Robinson, who spent his summers and weekends there at the family cottage growing up. His familiarity and connection with the area is potent. He notes, “So much of the film was influenced by the location. The film doesn’t exist without the town, without that location, without that cabin and just having nothing but solitude that whole time. It wouldn’t work. So the location of Nestor is paramount, and I couldn’t have shot it anywhere else.”

While Nestor was born, in some part, from Robinson’s character and tendency towards solitude, he is not as hermit-like as the character in the film. Unlike his character, Robinson is deeply connected to the community in Guelph and felt this connection had a major role to play in the creation of the film. He says, “Guelph is just a great place to work. It provides enough culture that it keeps my brain stimulated, but it's small enough that I don’t feel overwhelmed by being in a big city. When I finished Nestor, I came back to Guelph, where I live, and edited it here.”

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Robinson has shown Nestor at several film festivals, most notably at the Whistler Film Festival, which his Jane Graham Memorial Award allowed him to attend. When asked about his experience at the festival Robinson noted, “It was great. From top to bottom it was such a great experience. It went off without a hitch. We had two screenings of the film with great feedback afterward. People were very interested, mostly in the back-story. How it was that I was able to do it all. I think people liked the movie. There were a few reviews that came out of the festival that were very positive… I would say the whole festival was a big confidence boost because it’s a big deal and the fact that they chose my little movie, and people responded well to it and bought tickets for it. I was walking around with a smile on my face the whole time.”

When asked about seeing his film on the big screen Robinson noted it was “nauseating” but also, “Profoundly different. When you see it in a venue that it's designed for, you can really appreciate the work that you’ve put in, and you can really see all the glaring holes in the things that you’ve missed.”


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The Award was created in honour of visual artist Jane Graham, who lived and worked in the Guelph area for many years before her death early in 2005. Working closely with the Graham family, Guelph Arts Council established a fund with donations made in memory of the beloved and respected local artist. The fund is managed by The Guelph Community Foundation. Guelph Arts Council offers the award to support visual artists who are actively practicing in Guelph or Wellington County and wish to pursue opportunities that will contribute to their artistic growth.

Robinson shared that, “Financially, there was no budget for this movie. So any kind of help was just a real blessing…We went to the film festival knowing that we were in good hands, and the people in Guelph were supporting us. And it made the experience that much more pleasant knowing that the people of Guelph and the Arts Council saw something in my project and said ‘we want you to see this thing through and if we can help you we will.’ I was blown away when the award came my way. I felt very supported financially and emotionally.”

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The 2016 application deadline for the Jane Graham Memorial Award is Friday, September 30 at 4 pm. Any visual artist residing and actively practising in Guelph or Wellington County is encouraged to apply for opportunities that will be pursued after November 15, 2016. The award’s terms of reference and application instructions are posted here. The award(s) will be announced in late fall 2016.

To apply for the Jane Graham Memorial Award click here: https://form.jotform.com/52674521198966

For more information on Nestor and Daniel Robinson click here: https://vimeo.com/91763662 or http://www.nestormovie.com/

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