By Marci Becking
KLEINBURG, ON – Donald Chretien’s “Tree of Life” beamed like a spotlight through the crowd of people parading past exhibits at an Oct. 18 juried art show at the McMichael Gallery.
The brilliant colours used by the Nipissing First Nation citizen stood out in the crowd.
“I’ve already sold many of the smaller pieces,” he said, motioning to a series of sepia ink drawings representing Anishinaabe dodems, or clans. The show had only opened its doors 20 minutes earlier.
“I get my influences from the petroglyphs, pictographs and earlier drawings from Norval Morriseau’s beginnings.”
The Ontario Art School graduate had a varied career as a commercial artist, from animating for feature film, editorial illustration, to sculpting architectural features for casinos in Las Vegas. He also taught art for a couple of years at George Brown College in Toronto before deciding in 2005 to embark on a path as a full-time painter.
His art and that of other First Nations artists has been on display at Owen Sound’s Grey Roots Museum since July of 2010 and has been extended to February. The exhibit – called “The Good People: Know Our Stories, Know Us” – relates the stories of the Anishinaabe in a way that gives visitors a greater understanding of First Nations spiritual beliefs.
The collaboration led to Chretien providing the illustrations for Basil Johnston’s next book, “Walking in Balance” – ten traditional Anishinaabe stories told in both Anishinaabe and English for adults.
“Basil Johnston says, ‘When you are in balance you are walking on the right road, following the right path of life,” says Chretien.
His show-stopping acrylic “Tree of Life” clearly demonstrates a Morrisseau influence, linking the heavens, earth and underworld. Its branches spread from east to west, and its trunk passes through the natural world and ascends up into the sky world. Otter and Bear were chosen to push the first Tree of Life pole (Grandmother Cedar) from the earth’s centre through the surface, forming the first channel of communications between above and below. The canvas measures 40-by-30 inches.
He started drawing and painting at an early age, but didn’t consider himself a real artist until he was commissioned by the 2010 Olympic Committee to showcase an 80-by-12-foot mural called Ngashi Nijii Bineshiinh which means Mother, Friends, Small Bird. The mural, in Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum, and is laser-cut on aluminum, mounted on blue plexiglass.
Last March, the Union of Ontario Indians legal department chose Chretien to do the artwork for a package of educational resources dealing with Indian Residential Schools.
“I did all the work for ‘The Butterfly Girl’ in two or three weeks,” he recalls. “ It was a tough job – certainly a challenge to mix fear with spirituality.”
“Little Butterfly Girl” written by legal counsel Jenny Restoule-Mallozzi, tells the story of a child who was taken from her First Nation by an Indian Agent and brought to Residential School. The illustrations depict the harsh reality of losing one’s self and spirituality to abuse and forced religion.
Restoule-Mallozzi praised Chretien’s artistic contributions to the project for its calibre, beauty, depth, quality, and timeliness.
“His artwork brought the entire Indian Residential School Commemoration Project to life through his artwork in the ‘Little Butterfly Girl” book, poster series which also included stills from the videos we produced, logo for the project, acrylic painting, and all of our promotional material. The artwork in particular really took the book from just words on a page to a real story that one could envision. We were literally blown away when he produced the final artwork.”
See Donald Chrétien’s artwork in his own home studio as part of the 2013 Newmarket Studio Tour and Art show this Saturday 10-5 pm and Sunday 11-5 pm at 379 Botsford Street in Newmarket.