Honouring Daphne Odjig (b. 1919)
Growing up on a dairy farm, Daphne was no stranger to hard work. Nevertheless, she and her three siblings found time to enjoy the local swimming hole in the summers and local storytelling in the winters. Unfortunately, at age 13, a bout of rheumatic fever cut short her school attendance -- an event that frustrated her because she had plans of becoming a schoolteacher. Later, Daphne treasured the convalescent time she spent at home because it had provided the opportunity to become very close to her mother and grandfather.
As it happened, these two important people in her life died when she was 18 years old. Soon after, Daphne left the "Wiki" reserve for small-town Ontario, that is, Parry Sound, where she experienced racial discrimination for the first time. It was here that she and her siblings used the surname "Fisher," the English translation of "Odjig," as a response to the prejudice.
During the early years of World War II, Daphne moved to Toronto for job opportunities. Here, she met her first husband, Paul Somerville, whose military post took them to the West Coast. It was not until their two sons were attending school that Daphne began to take her painting seriously.
Daphne has said that she "was born with a paintbrush in her hand" and that, as a child, she lived for Friday art class at school. Her early paintings and sketches were in the realist style, mostly as a result of encouragement from teachers to create "realistic" paintings. Daphne felt that these instructions were rigid however, and she wished to paint how she "felt."
As an adult, Daphne did initially paint in a realist style, but she soon experimented with other styles as well. A self-taught artist, she often visited art galleries and borrowed art books from libraries, studying various artists and their work. Vanderburgh and Southcott recap Daphne's exploration of art styles as follows: "Daphne had taught herself to paint realism; next she explored cubism and then abstract expressionism. She moved through impressionism and cloissonnism. She was influenced by the Northwest Coast art and the developing Anishnabe style" (A Paintbrush in My Hand, p 88).
Daphne's work is often associated with the New Woodland school. This style was originally attributed to Norval Morrisseau, who was the first to defy cultural restrictions by taking the sacred pictography of the Ojibwa-Midewewin belief system outside Native communities. The style is described as having several characteristics: a predominant black form line, an undifferentiated black background, pure unmixed colors, a system of x-ray views and the system of interconnecting lines of sacred pictographs that is known as "linear determinatives" (Odjig : the Art of Daphne Odjig, 1960-2000, p. 16).
Bob Boyer notes that "Daphne often claims that she is not part of the New Woodland school" in that her works incorporated the importance of womanhood and sense of family, while others in the New Woodland group "concerned themselves with a spiritual quest" (Odjig : the Art of Daphne Odjig, 1960-2000, p. 12). Her work also differed in that she was influenced by Picasso's cubism, but within an Aboriginal context. She was attracted to the cubist style because of its "disregard for perspectival space, its skewing of the elements and relationships of reality, and its central compositional structure" (Odjig : the Art of Daphne Odjig, 1960-2000, p. 17).
In the early 1960s, Aboriginal communities across Canada were undergoing a cultural revival. At about this time, Daphne was encouraged by her sister-in-law to paint scenes from Manitoulin mythology. She also wrote and illustrated a series of children's books on legends about Nanabush, a trickster figure in Ojibwa culture. This work gave Daphne a focus and later, the confidence to paint for an audience. However, a major setback occurred: in 1960, her husband, Paul Somerville, died in an automobile accident. Daphne grieved this loss by working the strawberry farm she and her husband had built together and painting in the evenings.
In 1962, Daphne re-married. Her second husband is Chester Beavon. Beavon's community development work took the couple to northern Manitoba in the mid-1960s. Here, Daphne learned of the plight of the displaced Easterville Cree, whose lands were flooded by man-made dams. "She felt the need to respond to a community searching for its roots and contemporary relevance" (Odjig : the Art of Daphne Odjig, 1960-2000, p. 15). This response was manifested in a series of ink drawings about life on the reserve, with images of subsistence activities.
In 1972, Odjig's art took her to Winnipeg and a pivotal exhibition, "Treaty Numbers 23, 287 and 1171," at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The exhibition featured her work, along with the work of Jackson Beardy and Alex Janvier. This was the first time Native artists were featured in a Canadian public art gallery, rather than a museum. Regarding the significance of the exhibition, Carol Podedworny notes: "That the contemporary productions of living Canadian Native artists would remain relegated to museums of anthropology and ethnography well into the 1980s confirms the colonialist mentality that has surrounded the exhibition and interpretation of Native art in Canada for nearly sixty years" (Odjig : the Art of Daphne Odjig, 1960-2000, p. 14). This statement gives an idea of the struggle Native artists faced in their attempts to be recognized in the mainstream art world. In addition, Daphne was the only Native woman artist facing this struggle in the early years, a situation made all the more difficult because she was a self-taught artist and, as a result, not respected at that time.
Winnipeg was, nonetheless, something of a watershed for Daphne. It was here, in 1973, that she co-founded the Professional Native Indian Artists Association (colloquially called the "Indian Group of Seven"). This group included Daphne, Jackson Beardy, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez, Eddy Cobiness, Norval Morrisseau and Alex Janvier. As is evident, Daphne was the first and only woman to be a part of this group. Later, in 1974, Daphne and Chester opened the Warehouse Gallery in Winnipeg, a huge venture that provided support for emerging Native artists.
In 1976, the Beavons moved to their current home in Anglemont, British Columbia, a peaceful spot near Lake Shuswap. It was here that the ideas coalesced for a huge mural, commissioned by the Museum of Man in Ottawa (now, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau). While these ideas were taking shape, "Daphne realized she was going to portray history from the Native point of view. She would bring into this history her own reactions as a Native person -- her emotions of horror, pain, anger and hope" (A Paintbrush in My Hand, p. 85). The four-part mural, entitled The Indian in Transition (1978), was 8' x 27' and, as Podedworny writes, provided Daphne with the "…opportunity to be bolder, to express emotions with no inhibition … [Daphne considered this piece] a personal achievement related to her admiration of Picasso's freedom in expressing human truths. She thinks that her public had not been ready, to this point, for her to depict human agony on canvas" (Odjig : the Art of Daphne Odjig, 1960-2000, p. 20).
Since her work on this mural, Daphne has continued to paint without inhibition. Podedworny describes Odjig's 1970s work as political, and uses the metaphor of cultural anthems to describe her work from the 1980s and 1990s (Odjig : the Art of Daphne Odjig, 1960-2000, p. 14). Odjig's work, Podedworny argues, has evolved to a more lyrical emphasis and "the paintings seem to reflect a peace and tranquility not evident in Daphne's political oeuvre" (Odjig : the Art of Daphne Odjig, 1960-2000, p. 24).