Tim Whiskeychan is a productive and prolific artist and generalist of sorts when it comes to the visual arts – he’s a painter, illustrator, sculptor and craftsman. Many samples of his work are displayed in his hometown of Waskaganish and throughout the greater James Bay community.
Fluent in three languages, Whiskeychan is able to keep his modesty as we peruse his portfolio, while he claims paternity to a 25-foot granite monument standing in the heart of Waswanipi, He also introduces me to a collection of paintings, some of which had residency in metropolitan art galleries, and traveled as far as Normandy, France.
His work includes sculpture (metal and granite), oil and acrylic painting, watercolour, stained glass and airbrushing. He has produced logos, banners, panels and signs of all kinds. Whiskeychan carries quite an impressive portfolio, to say the least.
I was enthralled by a large stained-glass project, which adorns the local school library in a beautiful and appeasing light of spectral colours. The work features four geese by a shore – two of which are in flight. Majestic, ornamental… it certainly ranks among the top decorative projects ever designed for a school that I’ve seen. It could easily enhance a church, an embassy or any parliament building.
The son of a tamarack decoy maker and a supportive mother, Whiskeychan learned from his parents the joy of tackling a task and completing whatever he starts. A self-taught artist in his early life – who spent hours upon hours sketching and observing – he finally at the age of 28 decided to enroll in the Fine Arts program at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ontario, with a goal of improving his technique and seeking advice from professional artists. “We are never too old to learn… and learning is a lifelong process,” Whiskeychan states, unequivocally.
At Cambrian, he met Jack Tapilla, an illustrator, and his wife Betty, a painter; the two became his teachers and mentors. They were the perfect match for him, and made him feel welcome right from the start. “The Tapillas helped me discover myself and take criticism with an open mind,” Whiskeychan said. “They often told me to ‘loosen up’, to ‘breathe’, and not to be so uptight about accuracy… They helped me see the bigger picture.”
Whiskeychan received a recognition award from his college and his assignments were exhibited in the Art Gallery of Sudbury. He has been part of numerous exhibitions ever since and some of his work belongs to permanent collections.
Whiskeychan has also been a recipient to many grants, awards and honorariums. Some of his work has been commissioned by the Grand Council of Crees (Eeyou Istchee) and the Nation magazine named him Best Cree Artist of James Bay for three consecutive years (1998 to 2000).
Painting (Cree Style)
Though he uses a variety of media, acrylic painting is Whiskeychan’s finer specialty. Like many other Native artists, Whiskeychan seeks optimal effect with an economy of actions – that is to create a sensation with a simple stroke that would have resulted from long hours of layering. We both agreed this trait is quite common among Native artists and could be the remnant of survival economy where Native people have been known to be practical about the time available and the results that are sought.
Like other Native artists, Whiskeychan favours acrylic paint to oil because it is a “fast” medium. Since acrylic is water-based, it gives good efficiency. It is clean. It leaves no fumes. And Whiskeychan is proud to say that he’s been using the same paintbrushes for over 20 years. He also mixes airbrushing with classical painting because it helps create with more realism. Abstract painting is also privileged among his current artistic ventures.
Portraits and nature scenes are common features in his work. Whiskeychan was able to develop his own Cree style by using his language, his culture and his knowledge of history. His interest in archeology and ethnography enables him to represent Native traditions and values in an honest and authentic fashion. His travels to Navajo reservations in the U.S. have also broadened his perspective on traditional topics. His work is archival as such, and often depicts whole episodes of Native life in fine detail. Native art is like a history book that we can read and learn from. Whiskeychan has produced many longitudinal story panels depicting multiple aspects of Cree life. Mixed media also transmits a bundle of information; canvas is replaced by gesso, deer hide, and moose hide while incorporating birch bark, caribou lacing and edging, and feathers.
All artists are well aware of their role in transmitting culture to their people and abroad. Whiskeychan took it a step further and invested himself with the regional chapter of the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association where he sits as vice-president and spends his time promoting artists of all ages. He will be representing the Cree among 10 other nations at the upcoming First Nations’ Art Symposium at Mashteuiatsh Pointe-Bleue in August.
Whiskeychan ends our meeting by proudly introducing his daughter Emma Jane, a quiet young lady who’s been overlooking the interview for a while. Emma Jane is showing signs of a precocious talent as her father exhibits some of her better work. Definitely a “chip off the old block” – if I may say so.