Faye HeavyShield's Indigenous Minimalism at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation
By Chadd Scott
Faye HeavyShield 'I'll know you when I see you' | Courtesy of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation
The art world has no walls. No floor. No ceiling. No matter which direction you travel in for however long you look, you’ll never see it all. You can dedicate your life to art and still be surprised by what’s escaped you.
“It was through just pure happenstance of coming across her work that the project developed,” Tamara Schenkenberg, Curator at the Pulitzer Art Foundation in St. Louis, remembers about seeing Faye HeavyShield’s artwork for the first time. While well known in Canada, HeavyShield is little exhibited in the U.S. “I came across her work a few years back and was really struck by it. We as an institution have shown a lot of artists who are either directly associated with minimalism or artists who work within that language of spare form and as soon as I saw it, I wanted to learn more.”
Shenkenberg contacted HeavyShield and the two were off and running toward what would become “Faye HeavyShield: Confluences.” The career-spanning exhibition features a selection of drawings and sculptures from the 1980s to the present, alongside two new commissions responding to landscapes and histories in the greater St. Louis area. The show can be seen from March 10 through August 6, 2023, and will not travel.
HeavyShield (b. 1953) was raised on the Blood Reserve in the foothills of southern Alberta where she continues to live and work. She fuses rigorous minimalism with a color palette and materiality drawn from her Indigenous Kainai (Blood) Nation Confederacy heritage and childhood memories. Her work recalls family histories, traditional Kainai stories, language, and knowledge, as well as childhood experiences in the residential school system.
In I’ll Know You When I See You, HeavyShield uses as a starting point a childhood photograph of her mother.
“She took (that photograph) and started to create these drawings in which she's sort of repeating the silhouette and tracing the outline of her mom, but in a very searching way,” Schenkenberg explains. “Her mother has since passed and to me it felt like repetition as mindfulness, as a way of trying to form a connection and create a conversation between herself and her mother. Even though it's very personal, I feel like it's universal as well.”
The work’s title, I’ll Know You When I See You, possesses a literal meaning. A victim of Canada’s residential school system, HeavyShield, like tens of thousands of other Indigenous children, were forcibly taken from their families and sent to schools long distances from home for months at a time. I’ll Know You When I See You affirms that time, distance and state-sanctioned cultural genocide can not destroy the daughter-mother bond.
Faye HeavyShield ‘Trap Pieces’
Also on view in “Confluences” are HeavyShield’s “trap pieces.” The intention of these ultra-spare, wall-mounted, three-dimensional, mixed media, paint, wire and cloth sculptural pieces can challenge visitors.
“I think (the trap pieces) express her interest in elementary forms such as circles and simple lines. She often speaks about wanting to compress visual expression to its essentials, paring things down and having this reduction of form,” Schenkenberg explains. “For me, the reduction of form – what's been really beautiful to learn about – is that it doesn't come from the same interest that the artists of American minimalism were interested in. She asks us to locate the spareness of her forms back to the land that she comes from, back to the geography of southern Alberta which is a treeless, semi-arid prairie land with wild grasses and river coolies.”
Clyfford Still (1904–1980) is an artist American museum goers will be much more familiar with. He was born in North Dakota and spent a large portion of his childhood in southern Alberta as well. Like HeavyShield, Still incorporated those landscapes into his work. Living there, both recognized the richness of a terrain generally considered desolate by outsiders. The depth with which they see the area and the barrenness most others see there can put a barrier between audiences and the work.
“It’s often dismissed as flat, but she considers it to be incredibly beautiful and enriching with those subtleties,” Schenkenberg said. “With that land in mind, I think these traps reflect the austerity of the prairie and then also, the natural forms that can be encountered in that environment including animal skeletons that the shapes call to mind.”
Faye HeavyShield 'Trap in Yellow Ochre 2' | Courtesy of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Minimalism doesn’t typically come to mind with artworks measuring 8-feet-high and 75-feet-long. Those are the dimensions of one HeavyShield’s commissions created for the Pulitzer show. On display are thousands of 4x6-inch photographs of rivers across North American taken by HeavyShield. They’re close-ups where often only the ripples of water are visible.
Rivers and the name of the exhibition, “Confluence,” of course tie back to St. Louis, located at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Both rivers were photographed by HeavyShield for inclusion in the project which simultaneously highlights the power and fragility of these river systems.
Her second commission also directly responds to the area, this one the mound building practices of Mississippian people, most prominently recognized today at Cahokia Mounds just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in Illinois. A prominent cultural, religious and economic center, Cahokia’s population of between 10 and 20,000 people between A.D. 1000 and 1350 put it on par with any city in the world.
“She's thinking of herself as very much a guest here and having a conversation with those sites, of the peoples who created them, and also the way in which those sites have been neglected and mistreated and removed,” Schenkenberg said. “Initially, I was talking to her about this project (thinking), ‘oh, it's in response to Cahokia,’ but it's not just Cahokia. St. Louis had many, many mounds on the site that is presently the city that were removed and so it's this larger presence of the mounds existing and those that have been razed and demolished.”
HeavyShield’s presence in St. Louis will also be found at the St. Louis Museum of Art beginning May 5 with her participation in its Native Artist Collaboration series. The artist will debut new work in conversation with three Niitsitapi (Blackfoot Confederacy) parfleche bags from SLAM’s collection; the Kainai (Blood) Nation, is a member of the Niitsitapi.
Faye HeavyShield 'The Red Line' | Courtesy of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation