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connecting on a cellular level: An interview with Faye HeavyShield

The exhibition III brings together artists of different generations connected to the Prairies: Faye HeavyShield, Dorothy Knowles and Elaine Cameron-Weir. Working in diverse media, including large-scale installation, painting and sculpture, they offer powerful reflections on the natural world and human experience.

Through continuation, transformation and ephemerality, the artists in III express distinct relations to time—its expansion and collapse. Their works contain the reach of millennia and the fleeting spark of an instant. HeavyShield, Knowles and Cameron-Weir also draw attention to the body: how we stand and move, see and perceive, feel and adapt. They call for close viewing and physical awareness, while acknowledging the forces, both interior and exterior, that lie beyond our understanding or control.

Faye HeavyShield is a member of the Kainai First Nation and a fluent Blackfoot speaker. Her work uses formal reduction and the repetition of images, objects and sounds to create large-scale installations, often drawing on her community, history and language. In wave (2018), a new work created for the exhibition, HeavyShield continues her exploration of the spiral, using rope wrapped in printed pictures of grass from her home territory. The spiral shape relates to continuity and cycles of life, while evoking the circular rock formations created by Indigenous cultures throughout the Plains for millennia. HeavyShield’s expansive, floor-bound installation shifts the spatial order of the gallery, commanding the area above while inviting viewers to walk around its perimeter.

The following interview between HeavyShield and Rose Bouthillier, Curator (Exhibitions) at Remai Modern, took place in June 2019, and has been edited for clarity and length.

RB: The spiral form has been a recurring motif in your work. Why is this shape so captivating? What does it evoke for you?

FH: I see it as really being indicative of many things in a person’s life. When I was in art training there was an expectation of progress, that students advance from one way of making art to another. That’s something I resisted and rejected. For me, most of my comprehension about my own practice comes out of revisiting images and sounds and writings that took place at an earlier time. I don’t think that the door closes once a work is made, more that the work generates or regenerates. The spiral is, for me, a more attractive path than going from A to B.

At one point, in a drawing, I made a reference to the shape because I was so taken with an image in a doctor’s office. It was the inside of a person’s ear. It had this coil. You know how in some doctor’s offices they have these low-relief, plastic, bubble-gum-pink posters? I notice things like that.

RB: For this new work, the spiral you are making will be wrapped in photographs of prairies grasses. What does this imagery mean to you?

FH: I don’t see that I can really describe what it means to me. It’s almost like asking a person, What does your skin mean to you?” I would say the environment is an extension of myself because it’s always been there, from the time I was a child. It was one of the first things that I saw and smelled. I consider it a part of me. The landscape is an extension of the body because we’re dependent on it, and to flip that, the landscape is dependent on us. We’re sharing space.

RB: You work with the images in a very particular way. Building up a large collection of pictures and then multiplying them in fragments that become building blocks for larger compositions. So the images are used in a way that, from the outset, doesn’t relate to a singular, set perspective or objective representation.

FH: There are a few layers to this aspect of my work. Making multiples is a meditative place that I go to, where I communicate further with my art, and with the material, with the concept that I’m working with. It also reflects physically the cells of what I’m working with—connecting on a cellular level. When you look at the prairie, you see a plane. So that’s, to use a cliché, the big picture. When the plane is broken down into all these little images, they can be seen like blades of grass making up the whole. This approach is really about honoring the subject that I’m working with. For a person who hasn’t been to Southern Alberta, maybe they would think of prairie as flatness or a singular color, but there are so many differences in the topography and the texture of the land.

RB: How do you think about the formal language of your work? Would you describe it as minimal?

FH: I call the process that I use “reductive.” When I was in art college [at the Alberta College of Art & Design, in Calgary, Alberta] I saw a lot that I didn’t relate to, because, of course, all the things I was being taught came out of western art history. The things that would nudge me would be things that I recalled seeing or hearing. That’s how I came to use the materials that I use, because they were part of a language that I already understood. So I just developed that language further.

RB: Can you talk a little bit about what the decision to study art meant for you at that time?

FH: I was in my 30s, and considered a mature student, even though I was not really mature! A lot of the other people attending were much younger. At the time I don’t recall seeing any other people from any First Nations community in my studio or in the sculpture department, but then I had my family at home. I had my children. My children have always known me to be an artist. They’ve always been witness to it. It’s not an isolated existence. It can be solitary, but I enjoy that. It’s not like I felt in any way I was being left out of anything.

My choice also came down to a reduction of options. I did try—if you can believe—attending a computer science course. I guess that was what I thought of as productive. There were a couple things I tried, and art was one of them. I got accepted to art school, and I just stayed. I think I would have ended up there eventually, because I really believe in this gift of imagination that was given to me, and that was especially strengthened by my grandmother. She told me stories in a way that made me use my imagination. They were such fantastic stories, and it was effortless to enter into them, it was like the world fell away. That suspension gives you room to make up stuff and tell lies and all kinds of things. So I think that art is where I was going to be anyway.

RB: One of the aspects I really value about your thinking and practice is how integrated everything is. There is no separation; making and imagining the world is a 24/7 process. Yet each work, each vision, has its own life cycle. Could you talk about how a work begins for you? Where the spark happens? How it takes shape?

FH: It’s an ordinary thing for me. I don’t think I can isolate an incident and say, “This is where it began…” Sometimes it’s in my sleep. Sometimes it’s looking at something. Sometimes it’s a sound I hear.

For my work body of land (2002-2010), I started taking pictures of my own skin. It grew, just by examining things. Too many people think of the word “nomad” as aimless wandering. I started comparing that notion to what I knew of how my ancestors lived. That way of life was so sophisticated. They knew how to use plants for healing. There was a judicial system. The family unit was so well thought-out. They moved from one area to another in accordance with the needs of the community, to where the food was going to be, to how the seasons and the river systems were. All of that was so sophisticated. But a new imposition of understanding didn’t take those kinds of knowledge into account. All they saw in this movement from place to place was “wandering.” And so sometimes my work comes out of thinking about those things.

There was also the economy of how the lodges that my ancestors lived in could be taken down so efficiently, packed up, and carried by a dog. The community not only survived, they thrived because they were a community. I started to think about how a person could just take down their home and carry it with them. That’s when I equated the home with your skin, and the connection between body and land came into being for that piece.

When body of land was first installed, it was in a long rectangular space, arranged in a landscape configuration. The closer I walked toward it, it was like my physical self shrank, and I became small enough to be an occupant in one of those places.

RB: Photography has become a central element in your work. Can you talk about when photography entered your practice and how it’s shaped your process?

FH: At the start of my practice, my focus was always about the material in my hands. If I didn’t have access to a digital camera, I don’t know if I would have felt the permission to work with photography and multiples as I do now. In a way, I still do think of photography as having a preciousness to it, that act of freezing something, and then the whole process of printing. Using a digital camera was so much more aligned with what I usually feel when I make art: it’s getting up and pouring a bowl of cornflakes and then listening to the milk, and then eating it, and then that’s it.

In one of my early works using a digital camera, I was taking photos of the Old Man River in Lethbridge. I thought I was really going to get some good shots. What I didn’t realise was that if I got too close to the edge I would start to get dizzy. All of a sudden I sensed this vertigo, so I sat down on a bench and then I just held my hand out and kept taking pictures. Each one was different. So that, I guess, is really what photography means to me now. My eye didn’t have to be there because my hand was there, so it was almost like my hand was doing the looking.

RB: So much of your practice is about what you can take with you, what can be transported easily and assembled flexibly. With digital photography, it’s not only the camera itself that has an ease of movement, but the result as well, the image, which can be replicated and shared and reproduced, multiplied into a larger structure.

FH: The digital camera has really opened up a lot for me. It works in sync with this other aspect that’s really important to me, the humility of materials. I use plain photocopy paper to print the images. When you’re taking photographs of the buttes three times a day or three times a week, what comes out is that each image is different. I’m allowing all these bigger things to have their say, like the clouds or the shadows or the time of day. That’s what needs to be captured, it’s not about the quality or glossiness of the paper, or the process, or the hours I spent on it. I value the immediacy of it. It’s allowing art to be ordinary instead of hallowed. If you live it, then you just know what it is, because art is part of what you see and experience every day.

RB: Can we talk about the new installation at Remai Modern, and how it will occupy in space? You’ve done other works, such as rock paper river (2005), that are spread over the floor and create a topography. I’m imagining the new piece in my mind, and to me it’s just as much about the space above, and around, as it is about the form itself. This calls up the prairie landscape and its vastness, this great openness above.

FH: We don’t live in a two-dimensional world. When we encounter anything physical, it’s not just our eyes that perceive form. So even though the new work is a very low flat singular shape, I think our senses automatically give it physicality. You wouldn’t think, “Oh, I can walk across here. I’ll just tiptoe my way through.” Because the work has claimed that space above, not just the floor.

It was the same thing with those little paper boats in rock paper river. Each one was maybe the size of two fingers. But the space they took and the flow that they represented, really did convey a force—even though it’s invisible. That brings back the considerations that we have to make when a person is looking at something. If I stand up and I look at a picture, and you’re standing behind me, I will sense that and it shapes my experience. We sometimes think of our periphery as what is just beyond our eyesight, but I think it’s a wider field of sensing and awareness.

RB: I imagine that this installation will heighten viewers’ consciousness of the other bodies in the room, and how their relations to one another—orientation, distance, and direction of movement—are shaped by the work.

FH: When people encounter any form, I think they intuitively read a direction or effect. While one person may be standing on one side of the room thinking, “The spiral is going clockwise,” somebody standing next to them may see it at another way. Or they may see a coil even, lifting. Everybody’s perception will be different.

RB: A lot of your work concerns translation, communication, and the breaks or chaos that differences can create. I’m curious how you think about that through your forms. Do you feel that just as people understand certain languages, they understand certain forms? So much of your work is particular to a place, a geography or a community—how do you consider this specificity in terms of translation?

FH: For me, specificity does not preclude a universality. I think on one level, yes, my work is very particular to a community, to a language, and to landscape. But the units in that communication are not coded. I don’t come into it with a set notion, determining “This is what it means.” What I rely on is that each person looking at it brings themselves and something different to it, and I’m happy for that. I knew very early on that I needed to recede, just like my grandmother’s voice had to recede when she was telling stories. I don’t think we need to go beyond and search for something more than the vision and experience of what’s there.

The most basic connection that I work with is between myself and my environment. I want to honor that by not having a lot of extraneous attachments, or complications. It’s striving for a purity, of the grass that I see, or the river. It doesn’t really need any embellishing.