Video Art and Butterfly Gardens: the Mike MacDonald Fonds
Mike MacDonald – a self-taught artist, videographer and gardener of Mi’kmaw, Beothuk, Scottish, Irish and Portuguese descent – is known for being one of the first Indigenous artists to experiment with video art. He is also recognized for his butterfly gardens, which he planted in urban areas across Canada between 1995 and 2003. This summer, the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives began describing the contents of more than 400 videotapes that form part of the Mike MacDonald fonds, which also contains correspondence and notes, art contracts, ephemera, research material on environmental issues and Indigenous traditions, as well as a few miscellaneous items, most notably a hat crocheted out of video tape.
Born in 1941 in Sydney, Nova Scotia, MacDonald moved in 1963 to Toronto, where he worked as a social worker and cab driver, and briefly in a television studio. In 1977, he relocated to Vancouver and became interested in videography. Influenced by BBC broadcaster Peter Jones's The Technique of the Television Cameraman, his early documentary video production chronicled anti-nuclear activism in the area. His video archive dates from this period onwards and includes topical news reports taped from television, as well as his own footage of anti-nuclear protests and peace demonstrations.
A significant portion of this archival collection also highlights MacDonald’s efforts to capture the stories of various Indigenous communities, including the Tāłtān, the Gitxsan and the Nisga'a. While this includes footage shot by MacDonald himself, the collection also encompasses many hours of television news footage on the topic of Indigenous sovereignty. By the early 1980s, MacDonald had shifted his focus towards the ongoing fight for Indigenous self-determination, especially of Indigenous groups in British Columbia. MacDonald spent time in Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en territory in particular, and notably recorded the testimonies of Elders during the land claim dispute now known as the Delgamuukw Case (1984–97).
From the mid-1980s onwards, MacDonald began experimenting with video art and multi-monitor installations. His acclaimed video installation Electronic Totem (1987), in the Gallery's own collection, consists of five tube televisions stacked on top of one another to mimic a totem pole. Each television screen simultaneously plays footage showcasing aspects of Gitxsan and Wet'suwet’en culture.
Created two years later, his Seven Sisters is comprised of seven differently sized televisions laid out horizontally, each monitor representing a peak of the eponymous mountain range in British Columbia. Each monitor simultaneously plays different footage, transitioning from the scenic mountains to images of clear-cut forests and taxidermied animals. The sound of Elder Mary Johnson, a Chief in Kispiox, singing a healing song accompanies the images. The work was a criticism of ongoing methods of resource extraction, which prompted MacDonald to state in 1989 that if these continued “the only place our grandchildren are going to see the wildlife is stuffed in museums.” His insightful consideration of the industry’s detrimental impact on the environment and its wildlife was in many respects ahead of its time. As stated in his 1991 interview with Tom Sherman, he preferred being called a naturalist or conservationist, rather than environmentalist, and these preoccupations would continue to be the primary focus of his œuvre.
It was during his time photographing Gitxsan land (MacDonald was also a photographer) that he started thinking about butterflies and, more specifically, their connection to medicinal plants. Reflecting back, he said in a 2001 interview with Saskatoon’s Star Phoenix, “I kept getting butterflies in my pictures. When I started paying attention, I realized all the plants valued in Native medicine were also attractive to butterflies.” His extensive research into regional butterflies, complementary flora and its link to Indigenous healing eventually led to his designing and planting butterfly gardens across Canada.
Between 1995 and 2003, MacDonald created more than 20 site-specific gardens on museum and gallery grounds, driving across the country once a year to tend to them. Despite being places of respite and reflection, MacDonald’s butterfly gardens also helped highlight the stress on insects, animals and land as a result of environmental degradation and pesticide sprays. In a 1997 interview with Halifax’s The Daily News, he commented: “Butterflies are having a hard time of it. The plants they depend on are under stress and so are they.” Three years later, he won the first Aboriginal Achievement Award for New Media for his website Butterfly Garden, which describes various local butterflies and their preferred plants, all written by the artist himself.
Returning to the East Coast in 2000, MacDonald planted his last Butterfly garden in 2003. The artist passed away in 2006 and, although only one of his original gardens is known to have survived, his work has recently inspired Finding Flowers, a research project dedicated to studying MacDonald’s gardens in order to consider “the relations between the conservation of native plants and pollinators, along with the care for Indigenous artistic practices, cultures and languages”. In 2021 Lisa Myers, curator and co-lead of Finding Flowers, presented an audio tour with the McMaster Museum of Art to commemorate the garden artwork originally planted by McDonald at Gage Park in Hamilton. Since 2019, Finding Flowers has replanted the garden at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford and have also launched a revival plan for the garden planted by MacDonald in 1997 at the MSVU Art Gallery in Halifax.
Mike MacDonald's Seven Sisters is currently on view in A104 at the National Gallery of Canada. The Mike MacDonald fonds is part of the collection of the Gallery's Library and Archives . For details on the Library and Archives' opening hours, please see the Access page. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.