An Interview with Jane Ash Poitras: serendipity and art
Internationally acclaimed Canadian artist Jane Ash Poitras says her works “are all about serendipity. Being in the right place at the wrong time. Or the wrong place at the right time, making those connections and creating a piece of art about it.”
Poitras began making seemingly contradictory connections as a young adult. Following a Roman Catholic upbringing in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, she began exploring her Cree heritage. She earned a degree in microbiology, then studied art at Columbia University where she was influenced by the work of American artists Mark Rothko, Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. She developed her own unique practice of layering images, text, textures and found objects into diverse narratives in her painting and printmaking. Her work continues to be deeply political, spiritual, scientific and outspoken.
She has received numerous awards and recognitions, including the Order of Canada in 2017 “for her contributions to Canada’s artistic landscape as an influential First Nations visual artist.” She was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2011, the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award in 2009 and the Mikisew Cree First Nation Member Recognition Award in 2007.
Her work is held in public galleries and museums across Canada, including the National Gallery of Canada which holds in its national collection the 1991 triptych A Sacred Prayer for a Sacred Island and her painting Prayer Ties My People of 2000. Her work has also been acquired by the Canadian Museum of History, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The Royal Ontario Museum is currently showing four works acquired from her Consecrated Medicine exhibition which toured Canada over the past three years.
In this interview, Jane Ash Poitras talks about connecting art with science, spirituality and politics.
NGC Magazine: You said that you feel Prayer Ties My People, one of your works in the Gallery’s collection, is misnamed. Why?
Jane Ash Poitras: This piece is about the little bundles of cloth that we spend hours making for a ceremony. We put the tobacco in each one, then we tie them to our Sun Dance poles for when we do our Sun Dance ceremony. Those prayers are offered up to the Great Spirit of whatever religion you are. It should be called "Prayer Ties for Everyone" because everyone needs prayer ties. Even the politicians. Who else is going to tell them what to do if not the artists? We have been influencing politicians for time immemorial.
NGC Magazine: You cite the influence of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. How did they influence your technique and practice?
Jane Ash Poitras: I like Twombly’s scribbles and messages. Same with Rauschenberg. He writes on his work and he was inspired by his mother who was a seamstress. That’s why he has patchwork on his work, collaging it and patching it. These artists were transformers. They put pieces together that others said shouldn’t go together. But they said to hell with it, let’s see what comes out of this. What usually came out of it was a big statement because of their genius and their intuitiveness and intelligence. They were saying: "Wake up world. We need to talk about climate change. We need to talk about the opiate crisis."
NGC Magazine: Your work reflects a powerful combination of the spiritual and the political.
Jane Ash Poitras: I didn’t intend to be political. But somebody has to be the troublemaker and it might as well be me. I have done that all my life and that is how I got respect. I am fearless. I’m a law-abiding, Catholic person, but I don’t mind telling people off, the ones who deserve to be told off. But they know when they deserve it and I embrace them with love and spiritually heal them. I believe art can be spiritually healing.
NGC Magazine: You have a degree in microbiology. Do science and art intersect?
Jane Ash Poitras: They definitely do. Look at Leonardo da Vinci. He drew all those scientific diagrams of airplanes. He was interested in flight and science and he worked both into his art. Science is art. Every artist is a scientist and every scientist is an artist.
NGC Magazine: Which First Nations artists are your mentors or influencers?
Jane Ash Poitras: Carl Beam. He was a lot like Rauschenberg. Joan Cardinal Schubert, who was also my best friend. We spoke every day on the phone for 30 years until she died. Fritz Sholder was the first artist who really brought the Americans away from the concept of the "romanticized Indian". These were the artists, who were really crashing the gallery doors open and saying "hey, include us in your collections because we are just as worthy as all the other artists you have in there."
NGC Magazine: Are you doing anything different in your practice now?
Jane Ash Poitras: I am 68 going on 25, but yes, my work is a lot tighter. It isn’t as loose. I’m becoming meticulous, like a perfectionist. It is really hard to be a perfectionist while maintaining the wild, crazy, abstract, loose brushstroke effect. I’m almost working at the microscopic level. It’s not hyperrealism but it’s different. It’s extremely mature and well-honed. It’s exciting.
For details of works by Jane Ash Poitras in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. see the online collection. Jane Ash Poitras: New Acquisitions of Contemporary First Nations Art is on view at the Royal Ontario Museum until April 25, 2020.