THUNDER BAY — Students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School say the chance to showcase their work alongside renowned artists like Goyce Kakegamic and Carl Beam in a new exhibit at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery has fired up their creative ambitions.
The school’s Grade 11 art class collaborated with the gallery on an exhibit called Aanti eshayak?, which translates to Where are you going?
Working with curatorial staff, students explored the gallery’s permanent collection, selecting pieces they felt drawn to for display, and had the chance to submit their own pieces.
The resulting show mixes work by some of the country’s most celebrated Indigenous artists with that of emerging youth talent, and it’s not necessarily obvious at first glance which is which.
The school, known as DFC, is run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council and welcomes students from remote First Nations in the region.
Art teacher Greg Chomut said the exhibit was an exhilarating opportunity for students to have their work seen in the company of “legendary” Indigenous artists.
“It’s a huge confidence boost to see your art hanging on these walls,” he said. “It just kind of opens up that idea that, ‘Holy smokes, I can do this — I can get people to see my art and create something people want to see.’”
Tessa Harper, a Grade 11 student from Sandy Lake First Nation, said getting free rein to explore the permanent collection of over 1,600 works was a thrill, and an inspiration.
“It was amazing … going back into the collection and seeing so many kinds of works from so many different art styles,” she said. “Not only are they just amazing to see, but it also broadens your own horizons.”
Chomut called the project an eye-opening experience.
“Seeing the students walk into the permanent collection for the first time – which is not something very many people get to do – and seeing the look in their eyes when they’re taking in all that artwork and its beauty… The best thing is getting to see people fall in love with art and see they can create something, [too].”
Ekota Quill, a Grade 12 student from Sachigo Lake First Nation, said the exhibit had stoked a passion for arts and crafts she’s held since childhood.
“It meant a lot to me. I never had this opportunity to be in an art gallery and see behind the scenes, so I’m really grateful for that.”
Quill submitted a tikinagan – a traditional Indigenous cradleboard – she made at a Nishnawbe Aski Nation workshop. More than just an art piece, she said the tikinagan represents teachings and a connection to culture.
The chance to have the tikinagan displayed and recognized in a supportive environment was deeply impactful, she said, referring to the exhibit’s opening on Thusrday.
"I was overwhelmed by the emotions I was feeling," she said. "I had no idea how to react – I was in tears."
Harper said the experience of exposing her painting, entitled Solace, to the world was both nerve-wracking and rewarding.
“It’s kind of weird, in a really good way,” she said. “The anonymity of it was great – I’d be standing around seeing people I don’t know… looking at my work. I think the greatest part of it was they were looking at it because they wanted to, and not because they knew I was standing there.”
Both students said they’re enthusiastic to pursue their artistic dreams further.
“I think getting an opportunity for my art to be on display and have people encourage me as a result of seeing the things I can create, it makes me want to continue doing my best for as long as I can,” said Harper.
“Seeing all the art and how [many of the pieces] are so much older than I am, and they’re still being cared for, it’s amazing,” said Quill. “Like, that could be one of my pieces someday.”
Those are ambitions Chomut said he’s more than happy to encourage, expressing optimism over job prospects in the field.
“It used to be you’d go to art school and your career opportunities… there are some, but you’d end up like me, teaching art,” he chuckled. “But it’s a growing industry… because every company needs a PR department that has graphic designers and content creators. If you look around this world, everything has been touched by an artist.”