Ojibway artist Glenna Matoush works with materials, texture and colour in a way that combines the influence of traditional Native crafts sensibility with a sensitivity to light, colour and movement. Glenna’s art cannot be categorized as subjective or abstract, objective or representational and embraces an environmental reality. Her work is part of a tradition in which working with materials in a creative way is inseparable from lifestyle.

Glenna lived for many years in Mistissini and her work is well-known in the Cree communities. It has been exhibited across Canada, in the United States and Europe.

When did you start getting into art?
As a young girl. My grandmother and aunt were weavers. We used black ash, porcupine quill and birchbark to weave the baskets.

Just for the community?
For the community, but also to make some extra bucks as it was tourist country. I used to go with my aunt when I was a young kid and visit cottages on the lake to sell the baskets. I remember walking along a railroad track – nothing else just trees and railroad track -and going into this house to sell. My older cousin was with me and we were invited in to eat biscuits and fresh milk. It was the first time I had been in a non-Native’s house. I remember I was too afraid to eat. I was just scared of this woman. I must have been very, very young.

And your first contact with painting was in the family as well?
I saw my brothers painting. One (Bill Shilling) was 15 years older than me. He would come back from the city and bring back his paintings. Then I had another brother between us who would bring paints to the younger one who would try to paint too. So there was art always happening in the home.

Did you have any formal training in the visual arts?
I went to Montreal in the late ’60’s and studied at the art school at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with Arthur Lismer, Brian Stevens and David Sorenson. From 1976 to 1980, I studied printmaking in Edmonton. That was when the Native Communications Group produced a short film on my work. I was usually known as a printmaker, more specifically an etcher, working in both intaglio and relief until 1990. I hitchhiked to Mistissini Lake from our reserve near Lake Couchiching in Ontario and lived in Northern Quebec for 20 years off and on. I first exhibited my prints in Northern Quebec as well but waited ’til my kids were a bit older before getting back into it. When I was living up north, I had a lot of respect from the community. I was the only artist there and generally in demand. I used to do portraits of people when I lived up in Mistissini Lake. I used to have an open studio for anybody in the community – children as well.

Your art is naturally abstract and symbolic. Do you take your inspiration from nature?
Nature, and dreams, books, experience, moments of realization. Painting in the natural environment inspired me a lot. Everything came into play at exactly the right time and place. I mean, the birch bark was in easy reach and so were the porcupine quills. And of course there is the moose and caribou hair that I use for texture. My life changed dramatically when I had the chance to paint on canvas and discovered working in collage. The textures and acrylic medium just blew my mind away. It was a discovery of artistic freedom and pure enjoyment.

Your recent paintings are really interesting. They mix abstract, figuration and collage and there’s the re-emergence of portraiture in the subjects. There’s one title Alone I Am with a man’s face looking out at you, a bit haunting and reflective…

I stopped doing portraits of people when I met Kevin Kelly. He told me, why do you keep on painting portraits? You have to challenge yourself. I never did another portrait until this one a couple of weeks ago. Two weeks ago I was at a gathering of Native people. I started to do my first on Sitting Bull, with some torn two dollar bills and strips of newspaper instead of birchbark and cassette tape as in my previous paintings. Then I began painting. I felt like I was onto something new. It was sort of like leaving something behind. I was thinking about a friend and reading this book about Sitting Bull. I thought I’d do a portrait of my friend and included this poem by Sitting Bull because my friend who lives in Montreal reminds me of this wolf:

Alone in the wilderness

I roam with Much Hard

Ship in the wilderness

I roam/A wolf said this

To me. Sitting Bull

Another of your 1995 paintings My Great-Grandfather is buried under McDonald’s on Yonge St. in Toronto, very bright and full of colour, has an image of an old Indian coat right in the centre.

I was going to call that painting Any Souls in the Stars. It’s dedicated to my great-grandfather because I know he didn’t mean to sell our land. He was Chief Yellowhead, the last traditional chief of our reserve – about two hours north of Toronto. I learned about my great-grandfather when I was a kid. I didn’t know until later on that he sold our reserve land. Then we were divided up. Some went here, some went there. Divide and conquer I guess. My grandfather lived there but not his children. When I was up in Mistissini Lake in the fall of 1990, I tuned into CBC radio. An archaeologist was talking about my great-grandfather. He said that Chief Yellowhead is buried under McDonald’s on Yonge St. in Toronto. I’m not sure of the exact location. That’s where I got the title for my painting.

And the image of the old Indian coat?

My buddy’s best buddy in Waterloo had a grandfather who used to work on the railroad. He had inherited some Native garments – leggings, a pair of slippers with real fine fine beads, a little baby’s dress with bead work on it and the jacket. He gave me the baby’s dress and the jacket. I was inspired to use the image of the jacket in this painting as it was given to me about the same time I began this painting about my great-grandfather.

How do you feel about the Native art shows – always Natives on their own not integrated into non-Native shows – like New Territories, Indigena and Land, Spirit, Power?

I would be contradicting myself if I said there should be whites and mixed because I just screwed up at Fort York in Toronto where I was to be the only Native person in it.

Do you find it strange that Native art has not been integrated into contemporary art museums as part of the permanent collections?

Whenever I go to a contemporary art museum, I ask where the Native art is and whether they will have a nook for us one day.

Your 17-foot totem Ain’t our mother earth no more exhibited in the New Territories show in Montreal in 1992 and most recently at the DePianofabriek Museum in Brussels (summer 1995) was a real breakthrough.

The totem was my first abstract and my first painting using oil. I found it quite different from acrylic as a medium. That’s when I started to build up colour slowly. Whatever I experience or see influences my work.

Did you think of this piece as a totem or as a painting, as a ceremonial object?

No, it came after the actual concept. I had a big studio at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville. I had a whole bunch of canvas. At first I thought I should just cut It in half or into six-foot sections, but finally I decided it should just be one continuous painting.

You just completed two commissions for the new school in Ouje-Bougoumou. Are you happy with the results?

I consider these two works the highlight of my past three years of work. I left the North 3 1/2 years ago and only went back again to work on these murals. The subjects I dealt with in these pieces relate to the interviews of 1982 when the Crees were trying to establish themselves as a separate community from Mistissini. The Chief let me go through all their archives and bring these interviews home to look over. I read them all and selected some sections for use as texts in the painting.

The vertical mural recalls your earlier totem pieces. There’s a quote in the piece that reads: “When an Indian wanted to trade his pelts for a gun he had to pile his pelts to the height of the gun”…

The quote was from a respected Elder and hunter from Ouje-Bougoumou, Bally Husky, who was born in 1899 and died in 1994. I painted a tent that a person uses temporarily for travelling and the different structures we use in the bush in the work as examples of what home meant to us.

The second mural, Merry Christmas Canada, depicts both the seasons and the history of Ouje-Bougoumou. Along the top and bottom it reads, “From our Houses to Yours wishing The Government of Canada a Very Merry Christmas – The Ouje-Bougoumou Cree.”

They published a photograph in a magazine ad of an old tent frame with the tar paper peeling off, plastic on the windows with a propane tank nearby. So I decided to use this advertisement in the painting. It was a Christmas card from the Ouje-Bougoumou Crees to the government of Canada. Before this, I had wanted the painting to be just about the seasons. There’s a forest scene on the left. Then there’s a scene of the propane tank used in the ad. The third is of Native fiddlers who adapted French Canadian fiddle music tunes. The final section is of the new Cree village itself. I used various collage materials for texture: volcanic sand from Cuba and birch bark, as well as photocopy.

Was the mural well-recieved?

There was only one guy who didn’t like my painting. He said, “I have a French friend and we don’t always bring up the Plains of Abraham.” I told him my painting deals with part of the history of the community of Ouje-Bougoumou. It has to be recorded, that it’s not a good story but a very sad one and we should not forget it. He didn’t reply and just walked away. A couple of the white teachers up there told me the mural was fine.

How does working in a completely new Native community feel for you?

I believe that the Native community of Ouje-Bougoumou has a great future. It’s very upbeat. They teach the traditional language for the first three years and tell the old stories. They’re planning a Native museum up there. It won’t just have art but many things. There are younger artists now coming up. I think there’s more people who will be artists in Ouje-Bougoumou in the future. The community will also soon be initiating an artist in-residence program.

What are your plans for upcoming work?

My next paintings will be a series based on the first letters the Chief from the old village of Ouje-Bougoumou wrote to the government some 40 years ago. I plan to do research at the Indian Affairs Department in Ottawa before beginning them. These paintings will continue to focus on my environment and its people. The world must be made aware that the lands in Northern Quebec deserve to be saved from further exploitation and destruction.

John Grande is the author of Balance: Art and Nature (Black Rose Books, 7 995) and Montreal freelance writer.