An Interview with Daphne Odjig

 

Photo: Stan Somerville

Daphne Odjig is one of Canada’s most celebrated artists and, at 95 years old, still one of the most prolific. Of Odawa-Potawatomi-English heritage, Odjig was born on the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario in 1919.

She received her first lessons in drawing and painting from her grandfather, who was a tombstone-carver. Following formal studies in Canada and abroad, she began developing her own distinctive style, which features sweeping lines, organic shapes and contours, combining traditional Aboriginal imagery with strong Cubist and Surrealist influences.

In 1973, she was a founding member of the Professional Native Indian Artists Association — otherwise known as the Indian Group of Seven — which included Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez and Odjig herself. In Winnipeg a year later, she opened the first art gallery in Canada to represent First Nations artists exclusively. 

Odjig has received many awards and forms of recognition for her work, including the Order of Canada and the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. Her work can be found in public and private collections around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the Sequoyah National Research Center in Arkansas and the Government of Israel. Her work has been part of more than 30 solo and 50 group exhibitions around the world — including a 2009 solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada — and in 2011, Canada Post featured three of her paintings on a series of postage stamps.    

Daphne Odjig recently spoke with NGC Magazine about her work, her inspirations, and how she is still drawn to put pencil to paper every day.

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NGC Magazine: You have said that your work is “a celebration of life.” What are you celebrating? (Birth, death, nature, family?)    

Daphne Odjig: Having lived 95 years, I see and feel all aspects of life, and believe that it is all to be shared and recounted. It may not sound “right” to “celebrate” a death, but it was just as important to me to recognize loss and turmoil just as I chose to share joy. 

NGCM: Your work has also addressed controversial topics such as colonization; suppression; racism. Why did you feel those issues were also important to document? What was the message you wanted to share?

DO: Again, I believe it is just as important to highlight and memorialize all aspects of our world and cultures. To me, it is important not to bury the shame and trauma caused by the issues you ask about.

 

Daphne Odjig, Together Again (2014), coloured pencil on paper. Reproduced with permission from the artist

NGCM: Your art has depicted very traditional First Nations themes and images, as well as erotica. What led you in that direction? 

DO: It’s a simple answer, really. In 1968, I was commissioned by Dr. Herbert Schwarz to paint a series of erotic illustrations for his book, Tales from the Smokehouse. As a developing artist, it was an honour to be given a commission, so it was my goal to provide work that would please the buyer. I am grateful that I succeeded. 

NGCM: Who influenced you artistically? Who urged you to become an artist? 

DO: Art was in my blood and my soul, and my grandfather and whole family were encouraging influences. The more I learned, the more I wanted to study and produce art. Picasso was one of my favorite studies.

NGCM: Even with that strong family support and emphasis on the importance of art, you moved to Ottawa and then Sweden to study art. How was that formal education important to your evolution as an artist? 

DO: I was enlightened by many travel opportunities and experiences throughout the world. In 1971, I was invited to show my work at the Smotra Folklore Festival in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. In 1973, I was chosen by the Swedish Brucebo Foundation to receive a scholarship and be a Resident Artist at the Foundation Studio in Visby on the island of Gotland. In 1975, I was commissioned by El Al (Israel’s national airline) to tour and paint my interpretation of Jerusalem, and I produced The Jerusalem Series of Painting and Prints. Those experiences definitely enlightened my work, but I will say that I have also been blessed with support and opportunities here in Canada, which are too many to list in this short interview.

 

Daphne Odjig, Untitled (2014), coloured pencil on paper. Reproduced with permission from the artist

NGCM: When you ultimately put paint brush/coloured pencil to paper, where do your images come from?

DO: Images from my head are already in place when I start to create. It is not an easy thing to describe. I just do it.

NGCM: Who or what still inspires you to create art?

DO: The life I never stop celebrating.

NGCM: When you look back on your earlier work, how is your work today different?  

DO: It is not as easy to paint and create the way I used to, because of my physical limitations.

NGCM: You have a number of works in the National Gallery of Canada. Is there one — maybe more — that you are particularly pleased to be sharing with Canadians?

DO: It is an artist’s dream/goal to share their work with the world, and I have been blessed in that regard. I have enjoyed creating and sharing it all.

NGCM: What advice do you have for young artists?

DO: Without hesitation, I would say just be yourself and let your imagination, thoughts, beliefs, views, visions — or whatever inspires you — be seen. Be vulnerable, and share what is inside you. Regardless of what medium you chose to create, open up and share your gift.

To view works by Daphne Odjig in the National Gallery of Canada's permanent collection, please click here.

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