An Interview with Robert Houle
Courtesy Canada Council for the Arts. Photo: Derreck Roemer
Canadian Artist Robert Houle’s paintings are a distinctive blend of traditional First Nations art and modernism. He draws deeply upon his Saulteaux heritage, history and poetry as well as contemporary art, politics and literature to produce work widely considered to be a distinctly Aboriginal visual language.
As a winner of the 2015 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts, Houle’s work was said to be exemplary in how it is “characterized by aesthetic restraint, intellectual rigour, and deep empathy.” He has been internationally recognized for his impact on shaping both Aboriginal and Western art histories.
Houle earned a degree in Art History from the University of Manitoba, and a degree in Art Education from McGill University. He studied painting and drawing at the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Austria, then taught Native Studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto for 15 years. He was the curator of contemporary Aboriginal art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization from 1977 to 1981.
Houle’s work has been shown at major galleries around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada — which also owns a number of his works — as well as the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the Canadian Cultural Center in Paris and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Houle is a member of the Sandy Bay First Nation in Manitoba. As a child, he was sent to live in a residential school and his work frequently references this period in his life.
In this interview with NGC Magazine, Robert Houle talks about how his practice is informed by his work as a painter, writer, curator, and teacher.
Robert Houle, Messengers (2010), watercolour and lead pencil on paper, 56 x 76 cm. Collection of the MacLaren Art Centre. Gift of the John F. (Jack) Petch Family, 2014
NGC Magazine: Who encouraged you to pursue becoming an artist?
Robert Houle: In high school, I was encouraged by the principal and by some of my teachers, who all recognized my ability to draw and create things. As editor of the school newspaper and the yearbook three years in a row, I got the opportunity to design with very little interference, and was encouraged to apply to art scholarships and take art classes outside of school. In university I studied the Romantic poets, whose prose inspired me to see William Blake's illustrations as a possible creative activity. But it was not until I took an art history course that I realized I wanted to make art as a serious occupation.
NGCM: In your own creative practice, you are known for your ability to blend modernist painting with elements of your Saulteaux heritage. Can you describe how this approach evolved?
RH: As an artist, I never capitulated to the notion that modernity somehow excluded me racially, because abstraction has always been a spiritual and narrative part of my Saulteaux visual culture. I recall, as a young man in my First Nation community, young girls being asked to go into the bush during their first moon and to start collecting leaves from the trees, folding them and biting them to make abstract patterns for their personal quillwork and beadwork designs. This was abstraction using your body. There are many other examples used by boys, and later in life by shamans.
Robert Houle, Two Epistemologies (2008), vinyl lettering stencil, watercolour, and porcupine quills mounted to mat board on paper, 56 x 76 cm. Collection of the MacLaren Art Centre. Gift of the John F. (Jack) Petch Family, 2014
NGCM: A number of your works have recently been acquired by the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ontario and are being shown in a display called Obscured Horizons. You mentioned that you like that title. Why? Can you describe this installation, in particular the mixed media that you incorporate into these works?
RH: Indeed, the title is quite interesting as it implies an obstruction of the horizon. It is as if something is deliberately held back. Certainly that may be the case from another perspective. This exhibition has played very well with the public, probably because of the use of oil wash and porcupine quills which the viewing audience likely finds unusual.
NGCM: You have extensively explored and depicted First Nations history in Canada. Can you explain why this is an important element of your oeuvre?
RH: The real story goes back to my 1985 series, a suite of 13 mixed-media works on paper — Parfleches for the Last Supper — where I wanted to incorporate Indigenous materials for the first time as a reference to animism and new technological materials such as acrylic. One of them, #5 Philip, is on the cover of the latest issue of Art History, the journal of the Association of Art Historians. This process of using disparate materials was about bicultural issues and the need to address the fundamental differences between my spiritual and cultural traditions and those of the Christian paradigm in Western art. This mixture of materials had actually started in the early 1970s while studying at McGill University. I had been doing some self-directed studying of Ojibway quillwork and beadwork designs which at that time resulted in creating 13 acrylic paintings based on love poems. After leaving the Canadian Museum of Civilization and moving to Toronto, I wanted to start my own way of expressing myself, using everything that I considered remotely part of my identity after surviving 12 years in the residential school system.
Robert Houle, Anishnabe (undated), acrylic and pencil on paper, 56 x 76 cm. Collection of the MacLaren Art Centre. Gift of the John F. (Jack) Petch Family, 2014
NGCM: How does your Anishnaabe Saulteaux heritage continue to influence your work?
RH: I suppose it comes from a history dating to just after the Ice Age. Our mystical paradise of Turtle Island before Columbus thought he had reached India is a narrative left by the ancient ones. It is fair to assume that this lineage is an important heritage. It is also inspirational and maybe ironic, considering the seven-hundred-year colonial destruction of paradise.
NGCM: In 2015, you won a Governor General’s Award for the Visual and Media Arts. One of the works noted is your iconic painting, Kanata (1992), in which you reframe Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1770). Describe how you depicted that scene and why.
RH: The Delaware brave in Kanata is dressed in the national colours of the French and the English. My intention was to highlight his dispassionate composure towards the struggle that has just happened.
NGCM: You are an artist, a curator and a teacher. How do all of those roles influence/inform your work?
RH: With all of these roles, including writing and activism, it’s interesting that my making of art has always been personal. This is the only way I can stay focused, because when something leaves your studio it becomes so public.
Robert Houle, Anishnabe (2008), vinyl lettering stencil, watercolour, and porcupine quills mounted to mat board on paper, 56 x 76 cm. Collection of the MacLaren Art Centre. Gift of the John F. (Jack) Petch Family, 2014
NGCM: What do you want people to take away or learn from your work?
RH: Perhaps the thing that I find most rewarding about an exhibition is what viewers will read into your work. Many, like the ones who inspire me, are those who will finish a sentence that may have been started on the canvas.
NGCM: What advice do you have for students and emerging artists?
RH: My advice would be what my late mother said once she figured out I wasn't going to be a lawyer or doctor: "Don't paint anything you don't know."
Robert Houle’s upcoming solo exhibitions include Shaman Dream in Colour, on view at the Kinsman Robinson Galleries in Toronto from April 23 to May 14, Ritual and Ceremony, on view at the Art Gallery of Burlington from September 24 to November 20, and Memory Drawings, on view at the Latcham Gallery in Stouffville from October 1 to November 12.