Impressions from a visit to “Narrative Quest”

Sadly, I came late to “Narrative Quest”, which closes April 29 at the Royal Alberta Museum.  In the first week of April I managed to get in three visits, but I know there are still huge gaps in my experience of the art on display.  The exhibition is a display of works from the collection of the Alberta Foundation for the arts by twenty-two First Nations artists.  Most artists are represented by multiple works only some of which are mentioned here.  One artist, William Singer III, somehow missed my attention on all three visits.  My apologies to Mr. Singer.  I will try to visit the exhibition at least once more and I will pay special attention to Mr. Singer’s work and update this entry accordingly.

The works are well displayed within the exhibition (except, apparently, those of Mr. Singer) although the space is slightly hidden behind an exhibition of giant photographs of moths.  Certainly the big moths draw in families and I noticed many families spilling over into Narrative Voices and they seemed genuinely excited and impressed with the art.

A soundscape has been provided by Jason Chamakese   playing the North American Indian Flute.  The music is ideal:  unobtrusively  beautiful and yet worth attending to as Chamakese’s own piece in the exhibition.

On my second visit, on a quiet weekday early afternoon, I had the gallery largely to myself and went from work to work making brief notes on some works of each artist.  On my third visit I tried to fill in a few gaps — artists I had missed before, spellings I couldn’t make out in my handwriting.  What follow are my notes almost exactly as I wrote them as I stood in front of the works described.  I have added links to further information about some of the artists.  As I looked at the works I often noted what I took to be the influence of Jane Ash Poitras or Alex Janvier in the work of artists I was less familiar with, but, with reflection, I can’t help but think that the echoes are the effect of drawing on a common cultural rather than  an individual artist’s influence.  I don’t know.

Narrative Quest is dedicated to the memory of Joane Cardinal-Schubert.

Dale Auger 

“Call of the Blue Medicine Lodge”, 2000, is a fine piece to greet the visitor.  A blue jay stands on a stone on the right, balanced by a pair of eagle feathers on the left, all on a yellow ochre background.  Above is a red band with two rows of blue dots, ten in each row.  It is a very heraldic composition, very balanced and dignified.

Bruno Canadien

– influence of Jane Ash Poitras obvious.

poignant statements on dispossession in collage of ribbons, yarn and found images

Painted maps with water courses, particularly  “Mini Sosa”, 2008,  quietly echo Janvier

Joane Cardinal-Schubert

Very traditional motifs in stunning large canvas and paper.  Teepee decorations in the gallery, where they belong perfectly.

Traditional motifs making very contemporary political comments

“Medicine Wheel (There is no Hercules)”

with two teepee poles acting as frame/supports, a stunning portrait of a medicine wheel floating in the sky.  Spirit figures dance? watch? wait?

Jason Carter

“The Considerate Baby Bison” 2008 wonderstone is almost birdlike, but, is it a children’s slide?

“Mother Eagle” soapstone, 2008 Not so successful — it is just a wee bit too much like a towel holder.

Delia Cross Child

“Take your Hat off Edward Curtis,” 2008

Five faceless figures standing in a field of flame, yellow ochre, seven sun circles across the top.

beautiful monumental painting.

Edward Curtis is, of course, the late 19th early 20th century photographer who devoted most of his life to photographing First Nations people in the western U.S. and Canada.

David Garneau

Fascinating dot paintings.  “Lac Ste Anne” is all golden light as the figures wade in the sacred waters.

“At the Fiddle Camp” is the swirl of sky and air and smoke.  The teepee is almost a blanket wrapped grandmother.

Tanya Harnett

“Persona Grata”

series of 16 photo self-portraits.

Disturbing uplifting, amusing, beautiful in the extreme.

Faye HeavyShield

– “Blood” 2004

a cascade of red ochre cotton strings with tiny cotton bundles also red ochre tied a few inches apart.  The bundles are almost tiny human figures or miniature versions of “Red Dress”.  This is a haunting work.

“Red Dress”

There is a dress in the corner with no gallery tag.  Simple of cut, red with a single line of beads across the chest and metal rim tags (price tags?  artifact tags?)  in two rows below.

an appreciation of Faye HeavyShield

Heather Henry

Heather Henry’s “Untitled” 2007 mixed media is another small gem.  Is it a bird’s nest? a well? an eye? Is it beautiful? Yes.

Terrance Houle 

Terrance Houle’s “Urban Indian” series of photos seems initially marvellously unselfconscious, but it is actually very full of both pride and humour.

Alex Janvier

What to say?  Alex Janvier is a Canadian Icon.  I have known and loved his art since I was a teenager in the ’70s.

“Untitled” 2009

A creamy brightness with a hint of bone.

“Cold Lake Air” 1994

Beautiful, beautiful blues of sky and water.

“Apple Factory” 1989

More representational than Janvier usually is.  A startling (and darkly humourous) statement on the residential school disaster.  This one piece could occupy whatever time is available.

Brenda Jones-Smith

“Transform” and “place to gather” digital prints 2001

shawled women’s figures from the rear in various bands with bands of yellow ochre, green, red, yellow and blue.  Poitras influence evident.

Eric Lee Christopherson

“Red-Tailed Hawk” and “Merlin in flight”

The Merlin’s face is so expressive.  and Christopherson has beautifully solved the problem of sculpting a bird in flight.  The merlin’s wingtips embrace the earth, not anchoring the bird, but lifting and sheltering Turtle Island into the sky.  This is a riveting piece.

“Red Tailed Hawk” from the right comfortably resting from the left about to take flight.

George Littlechild

“Tom Longboat” 1990 A monumental portrait of the Onondaga long-distance runner of the first half of the last century.

“Primal Elements#1” 2006 is another prairie first nations collage.

“CrossCultural Examination #2” 2007 is Littlechild using digital collage to make an expressive, balanced composition of the before and after of Native history.

Terry McCue

Eye-catching and beautiful rainbow portraits of wildlife.  But these and not ordinary animals.  They are spirit creatures.  The Bison’s eyes in “Grandfather’s Tears” are inexpressible.

Frederick McDonald

Frederick McDonald’s small gems “Home Sweet Home” and “Thunderbird’s World #4” Beautiful pieces executed with certainty and precision.

Aaron Paquette

Luminous canvases incorporating gold-leaf exquisitely.  Painting which strives almost successfully to be stained glass.

(Update, April 19, 2012:  a big collection of Aaron Paquette’s work lines the main long balcony/corridor on the third floor of the Walter Mackenzie Centre [University of Alberta Hospital] for those who have missed Narrative Quest or just need a fix.  Well worth a visit whether you need to see a doctor or not.)

Jane Ash Poitras

She is simply stunning!

Each collage is filled to overflowing with memories, history, dignity.  Abstractly expressionist and rigidly formal at the same time.

Her small shadow boxes from 2005 “Da Vinci’s conception” and “Samuel Morse’s Communication” are easily missed, but don’t.

“Gathering Medicine” 2003 is an absolutely beautiful piece, a collage of historic photos of women forming a column in the centre, bracketed by exquisite painted poppies and fly agaric mushrooms on the right, a startling blue jay, sage and sprigs of actual cedar leaf on the left.

Heather Shillinglaw 


10 square floral collages in mixed media on black painted canvas. breathtaking.

Stewart Steinhauer

stone sculptures

“In the Sweatlodge” 1992 is a stunningly rich piece.  So many animal figures comprise the sweatlodge:  bison x 2, eagle, goose?x 2, human? face x 2.  Are those fingers forming the floor?

Steinhauer’s “Papamihaw Asini (Flying Rock)” 1999, modelled on the Iron Creek Manitou Stone, is permanently on display in the Syncrude Gallery of Aboriginal Culture on the second floor of the Museum, near the Manitou Stone.

William Singer III


Adrian Stimson

“Post Modern Bison” another darkly witty piece, a bison hide stretched into a rectangle but with still a hint of shoulder hump in the top centre.

Justin Wandering Spirit

“Wuskwa” is a beautiful black serpentine bear.

Some general thoughts

Narrative Quest is simply a beautiful exhibition, providing a stunning cross section of the rich art being produced in Alberta by aboriginal artists.  In the context of this exhibition, the fact that the content flows from First Nations is relevant.  I want to emphasize, however, that these works, while certainly reflective of their makers’ nationality, are on display not because they are great aboriginal art (which they undoubtedly are), but because they are Great Art, with no ethnic adjectives necessary and, thankfully,  no justification offered.  Narrative Quest is not an ethnographic exhibition, it is an exhibition of works by professional Canadian artists.  These works could — and should — be displayed in any gallery in the world.

I hope that the Alberta Foundation For the Arts will arrange to tour the exhibition to galleries around the Province.

I dream that one day Narrative Quest will tour the country and the world.

4 comments on “Impressions from a visit to “Narrative Quest”

  1. […] also want to mention, there’s a beautiful display of Aaron Paquette’s artwork (see my blog entry on Narrative Quest) on the third floor north of the Wound Care Clinic.  Anyone who’s in Edmonton and […]

  2. […] and gold leaf.  I first encountered and was struck forcefully by Paquette’s work in the Narrative Quest show earlier this summer at the RAM.  For me, “My Heart is in Quarters” is a high […]

  3. I stumbled across this entry in your blog doing some research. Just thought I’d let you know that this great exhibit has had a chance to travel, as you wished. It was in Tokyo, Japan in early 2015!

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