Our conversation — in what she says is her final media interview — also revealed a tone of well-earned confidence. Odjig has received the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia, the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, seven honourary degrees and was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA).
“Canada has been very good to me,” reflects Odjig. “Life has been good to me too. I’ve had my ups and downs like everyone else, but you persevere. You persevere through life.”
We are talking because a major, final exhibit of Odjig’s work is about to open in Edmonton. “Odjig,” a four-decade retrospective at Bearclaw Gallery, includes works from Odjig’s private collection as well as pieces never before exhibited. Odjig stopped painting about six years ago so this event marks the last commercial gallery exhibition in which she will be providing art from her collection. The works range from $1,500 for the drawings to $33,000 for paintings.
“I can’t even fathom that the Bearclaw Gallery is the venue for this event,” says gallery owner Jackie Bugera. “It is a great honour. I think Daphne Odjig is one of Canada’s greatest artists. Everything she explores is intuitive. There is an organic feel to the work that is distinctly her own. We will for generations to come be infatuated with these works.”
Odjig is an extraordinary woman, laden with talent, stamina, acumen and a sense of humour.
“I danced my way through Yugoslavia,” she laughs, sharing the time she donned her buckskin dress and moccasins to dance in Zagreb Square. Odjig was there in 1971, touring and exhibiting her work at a time when Canada did not yet fully acknowledge or celebrate First Nations artists.
“So many galleries did not believe in us,” remembers Odjig. “They said we were ethnographic. I was out to prove that my work was art, not ethnographic.”
Odjig has been honoured in unique ways, both at home — Chief Wakageshig of the Wikwemikong Reserve presented her with an eagle feather in 1978, an honour traditionally reserved for great hunters or warriors — and abroad — she was one of four artists selected in 1986 by the Picasso Museum to paint a memorial to Pablo Picasso in France.
“I don’t know what it is to have an afternoon nap,” laughs Odjig, who golfed every morning at 7 a.m. until she was 84. Such is the drive of a woman who simply did what needed to be done.
Odjig was born in 1919, the end of the First World War. Her father and grandfather, Chief Jonas Odjig, were Potawatomi, descendants of the great Chief Black Partridge. Her mother, Joyce Peachy, was an English war bride.
“I feel very fortunate; I was raised with two cultures. My mom was just a beautiful mom to come to a reserve not knowing where she was going. They were married over in England and she crossed the ocean all by herself; my dad didn’t come back till afterwards. My grandfather met her in the town of Manitowaning and immediately said to her, ‘You have no idea where you are going, lady. I think you had better turn around and go home.’ She must have been a brave soul. I am so proud of her.”
Odjig’s favourite subject in school was art and she spent time sketching with her father and grandfather, both of whom were artistic.
“I travelled around with my grandfather; I was his shadow,” remembers Odjig. “I used to watch him as he carved the tombstones. He was my first mentor.”
Her schooling came to an abrupt halt in Grade 7 when she contracted rheumatic fever and spent six months in bed and the following three years recovering. In 1938, after losing both her mother and grandfather within weeks of each other, Odjig and her siblings went to live with their grandmother in Parry Sound, Ont., where for the first time she experienced racism and was refused work. Eventually, she moved to Toronto during the Second World War when factory jobs were easy to come by. She began to visit art galleries, teaching herself how to paint over the next decade.
After the war, Odjig married Mohawk/Métis war veteran Paul Somerville and moved to Coquitlam, Br.C., giving birth to her son Stanley in 1948. Odjig continued to explore art, experimenting with cubism, abstract expressionism and modernist techniques. The family purchased a strawberry farm and moved to Columbia Valley in 1958 but tragically, Odjig’s husband was killed in an accident two years later. Managing the farm by herself during the summer, Odjig devoted the winters to her art.
In 1962, Odjig married Chester Beavon, moved to Manitoba. She had her first public solo exhibition five years later in Thunder Bay, Ont.
The ’70s were productive and groundbreaking years for Odjig. She founded a print company allowing native artists to explore a medium that made their work accessible to the world; co-founded the Professional Native Indian Association (also referred to as the “Indian Group of Seven”) along with Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Joseph Sanchez, Jackson Beardy, Carl Ray and Eddy Cobiness, a group that sparked the native art movement; and opened the New Warehouse Gallery in Winnipeg, the first Canadian gallery devoted to native art.
There was another milestone in 2009 when the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa held a retrospective of Odjig’s work, the first solo exhibition by a First Nations female.
I first laid eyes on Odjig’s work in a magazine when I was 20. Earth Mother (1969) portrayed a pregnant female, arms tenderly folded around her unborn child, symbolically embracing humanity. A wave of emotion was relayed through her swirling lines, curves and bold colours. The unforgettable image was exhibited at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.
“That has been a gift,” says Odjig. “Every stroke of the brush, every stroke of the pencil, it comes on its own. I don’t even write down colours. I pick one colour and another one comes right up after it. I’ve never had to think about being an artist; it is just there in my soul.”
Enjoying the challenge of using different mediums and styles, Odjig melded her aboriginal roots with European influences. “My dream was always to bring the two cultures together.” Her distinctive style, charged with energy and movement, has a universal language. It captures the voice, history and legends of her people as well as the notion family and Mother Earth.
Odjig now lives in Penticton and after 48 years of marriage, lost her husband last November. Though no longer making art due to arthritis, Odjig says things are not slowing down. “Life is busier as you get older.”
In February, Canada Post released a series of three stamps showcasing the diversity and strength of her work— Pow-wow (1969), Pow-wow Dancer (1978) and Spiritual Renewal (1984).
“I feel so fortunate that they chose three of my paintings for the stamps. I just can’t believe this has happened to me.”
Odjig’s son, Stanley Somerville, republished the Legends of Nanabush, a series of 10 children’s books about the native spirit in 2009. The stories, first retold and illustrated by Odjig in 1971, were extremely popular.
“I am so glad those books are republished. My grandfather told me these Nanabush stories mostly,” Odjig says. “I find it satisfying when someone comes up to me and says, “Oh, I remember your Nanabush books when I was this high. I like that.”
Odjig is equally thrilled to see her art being brought to life in another form. Through Odjig Arts, Somerville has developed a Canadian-made clothing line with award-winning designer, Sheila Keighron, under the Genesis Fashion Design label. Both women’s fashions and a Nanabush children’s line will be released in June.
“I was born to create and that’s what I did,” says Odjig.
By Janice Ryan, edmontonjournal.com
>>> Reference posts:
- Daphne Odjig at The McMichael Canadian Art Collection,
- Great Anishinaabe/Woodland Artists (Part II), - Odjig about Picasso,
- The Drawings and Paintings of Daphne Odjig: A Retrospective Exhibition, - A major work by Daphne Odjig available for purchase at Hodgins Art Auctions Ltd. in Calgary, AB & - Canada Post celebrates Daphne Odjig’s contribution to Canadian art.