Glenna Matoush is known across the globe for her masterful and celebrated canvases. She presently has works exhibited in the National Gallery, has had major shows in Toronto and Europe, was once a special invitee of the Vatican to display her work and very soon her art will be displayed in the Parliament of Canada. What might be less known about her is that in her own opinion, “It was art that saved me.”

Life began for Matoush on the Rama Ojibway Reserve in Ontario and she says art has always been a part of her life. “I was always an artist. As a child I was always doodling whenever there was paper around, which wasn’t very often. Sometimes I used newspaper if we happened to have one or come across one or could afford one.”

Her inspiration came from within the family. “I was lucky I had two older brothers who are artists and I was influenced by them at a very young age. I was raised there in Rama and I moved to Mistissini when I had my kids.”

Married life was not bliss however, says Matoush. “I was living in a very abusive relationship. I was severely abused physically and mentally.”

Art gave her an out. After her children grew up, Matoush was given the opportunity to go to an art show in Quebec City. “I left with a small little bag and my passport and I never came back to Mistissini for 10 years.”

She went on to explain that, “Back then there was no support systems for women who lived in my situation so I left everything.”

She sought comfort with friends she had made in Montreal’s gay community. “I had friends who were artists and they happened to be gay and one of them was a professor of art and he helped me. They [the gay community] supported me and they hugged me, hugged me, hugged me.”

It was through one of these artists that Glenna began her own journey to becoming a successful artist. “Kevin Kelly was artist in residence at Bishop’s University. He arranged for me to have a studio also at Bishop’s for three or four months. I was treated like a queen.”

With the opportunity to reconnect with her artistic side and a chance to lick her wounds, Matoush had a revelation, she says. “I was convinced that there was no turning back. He [Kelly] taught me to be strong and to never go back, this was the situation I lived in. He and my gay friends were my support system. That is why I have so much respect for all gay people. I am not gay but I deeply respect and love them.”

Turbulent times still followed for Matoush and it took years before her artistic career really took off. At times her ex-husband would find her and she would have to move. She did not settle down until years later when she finally found love again with her present husband and settled down on Montreal’s Parc Avenue where she presently has a studio.

It was not just the gay community that helped Matoush heal from her two decades of mistreatment, however. The Cree Nation also played a big role in her life and particularly in her art. “The Cree always supported me too, the Mistissini band always supported me. My relationship with them is very good. There has always been respect between myself and the band council, with the chief and starting with Henry Mianscum.”

In regards to her art, “There is not much Ojibway about my work, it’s mostly Cree influenced since my life has been with the Cree. They are my favourite people!”

It seems the influence in her work is not a matter of rejecting her Ojibway side but going with what she knows. “The Cree is such a big part of my life, even though I live in downtown Montreal. I mean I am not going to do city scenes and crap like that, I want to do what comes from my heart and what affects me and how changes affect me.”

She gives the example of some of her recent works from this past August. “I anointed my paper in the Eastmain River.”

Looking at her life then and now, Matoush recognizes the level of difficulty she experienced fleeing such an abusive situation. For those suffering the same fate she recommends they “get out somehow, find some way to get out of the situation and to run. I would say come to Montreal to a women’s centre and get some counselling, a support system.”

For these women, she went on to explain, “They don’t see that there is going to be light after the situation ends. But there is very much life to live. You will find light and a glorious life can await you still. It just takes a little time and help.”

Her message to the women in her community was this: “Women, we have power and we don’t even know it! We have power and we just have to present it to the world but we have the power and it’s in our grasp. We just have to recognize that we have the power to not be beaten. I wish that every woman out there would realize that they have it like I have it. I have it now. I am empowered.”