Aborginal art exhibit opens at Laurier

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Adam Marsh never thought he’d see something he painted displayed publicly, let alone in a gallery. But when he got to Wilfrid Laurier University’s Robert Langen Art Gallery Tuesday morning, sure enough there was his painting, along with the work of his classmates.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Marsh, a grade 12 student at Sir John A. MacDonald (SJAM) high school in Hamilton. “I didn’t think it would come to be in a gallery like this and I had no clue it would be this big. The paintings are all so beautiful and seeing them like this in a gallery is just, whoa.”

Tuesday morning marked the opening of an exhibit entitled Songide’ewin: Aboriginal Narratives at Laurier’s Langen Gallery. The exhibit is a product of a unique initiative which celebrates Aboriginal art done by high school students and teachers at SJAM as well as students and faculty from WLU’s faculty of education.

Guelph-based artist and Ojibwa elder Rene Meshake, who helped facilitate the program, also contributed pieces to the collection which totals 30 paintings and pieces of writing, most of which are being displayed at Laurier over the next week and a half.

“We have the responsibility to teach our teachers who will be going into the field about working with Aboriginal youth,” said Kristiina Montero, an assistant professor in the faculty of education at Laurier.

“I started talking with Rene and he told me he had an idea of collecting art for storytelling and that’s how the idea began.”

From there, Montero met with Beth McQueen and Carole Leclair, teachers at SJAM, which offers courses geared toward Aboriginal teachings, such as Aboriginal English and Native arts and culture, the latter being taught by McQueen. And in October of 2011, the program was born and the art for Songide’ewin — which, as Meshake told the audience Tuesday, means “the strength of the heart” — was being created.

According to Montero, one of the most crucial elements of the program was to eliminate any existence of a hierarchy. “The teachers were students, the students were teachers,” she said.

The result, according to the participants, was an incredible learning experience for the high school students, the current teachers and the future teachers of Laurier’s education program.

“To be honest I was a little bit nervous at first, I wondered how it would all work out, but it went wonderfully well,” said Eric Flemming who taught Native arts and culture as a supply instructor during the winter semester and contributed paintings to the collection.

“It was a really nice community atmosphere. I’m just tremendously impressed and proud of the way the program went and the art that came out of it. These kids are just amazing.”

McQueen echoed Flemming’s satisfaction with how the program worked out.

“These kids are remarkable,” she said. “They opened up, they allowed their spirit to become part of something that was bigger than them and we all know that’s not an easy thing for adolescents.”

Creating their art work also gave the students an opportunity to connect with their roots.

“I really had to open up and ask some questions about who I am as a person,” said grade 12 SJAM student Cassandra Bice-Zaug, who wrote one of the written pieces in the collection. “As I started writing, the writing grew with me. I felt like I became one with the art and the community.”

“It was a really cool experience,” added Michael Young a grade 12 SJAM student who contributed a painting to the exhibit. “You didn’t know what you were making until you had made it.”

The collection will be on display between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. May 22-31 at the Langen Gallery. Admission is free.

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