Monday, 27 February 2017

The Art of Mary McPherson: Resurrection of A Lost Art and the Way to a New Renaissance

Mary McPherson is a Governor General's Award Winner
(junior category) Her show is on this March at the Calico Coffeehouse
Bay and Algoma, Thunder Bay, Ontario
 If you’re thinking that a lonely late night staffer at the Chronicle Journal, bleary-eyed and dozy, mistakenly placed a photo of a twelve year old girl in this article instead of an older and more mature looking artist, you’d be wrong. Mary McPherson is a petite twenty-year old second year student studying visual art at Lakehead University. Mary is working towards a double major in Indigenous Learning where her father, Dennis McPherson teaches. Although only twenty, Mary displays surprisingly technical and creative ability in her dramatic drawings featuring a rare command with her chosen subject matter, deliberated upon with great forethought and some experience. 
    “Generally I’m speaking about assimilation,” says Mary about her first few graphite drawings at the Calico Coffeehouse at Bay and Algoma. “They are about resistance. The three other works are about how deeply imbedded the assimilation processes are in our communities.” 
    Few artists are as adept or keen to take on issues important in their own lives to reflect longstanding and complicated current issues that are also important to millions of others who share the same history. These works are built upon her deep knowledge of the conflict between Canada’s European heritage and that of Canada’s First Nations people. Conflicts similar the world over.
Colonial Expansion, graphite on paper by Mary McPherson
    Mary’s stagecraft mix of familiar looking landscapes are similar to works by Georgia O’Keeffe and referenced from Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven fame. Mary’s choice of elderly subjects who command the images are taken from turn of the Twentieth Century photographs. Resplendent with Mary’s acute detailing of their skin, she humanizes her subjects with great attention to detail with graphite lines deeply tracing crevices crimped by time. And with Mary’s surrealistic treatment not only is there a hint of Salvador Dali there is also an unmistakable association with the American Expressionist movement when it was in full form in the United States before ending abruptly shortly after the Second World War. A wonderfully illustrated coffee table book on the subject is Bram Dijkstra’s, American Expressionism: Art and Social Change, 1920 - 1950.
     Expressionism’s many dynamic styles began in Europe growing quickly to full fruition with its socialist zeal when the Works Progress Administration came into being, a signature creation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Millions of people, including artists of all stripes were put to work. F.D.R.’s New Deal sparked monumental changes in the United States, changes that have conflicted with the conservative agenda ever since. Social progress stalled in the 1950s, and art history took a turn for the worse. Expressionist artists could have continued to fight for social progress had there not been an abrupt change or deliberate turn towards fashion over substance, mostly for political reasons, down a road towards an antiseptic cold and hard “modernism.” 
   And now we face the prospect of our American friends having their hard earned social progress since the 1960s dramatically uprooted by the newly elected and appointed Trump administration. Thus the call by many for artists to fight for what they believe, to make their art socially active and relevant as the Expressionists once did so well. A similar movement could be invaluable today.
       The Expressionists were all about inclusion, diversity and social progress for everyone. In their art and lives they fought for workers’ rights, African American’s rights, women’s rights and other worthwhile causes. Many artists did so with a utopian Marxist zeal. Today, with the disheartening wagon-circling of the right wing, nutcase conspiracy theorists and extremists in our midst it could not be too soon for an uplifting arts movement, a Renaissance spearheaded by First Nations artists. Mary however isn’t looking for Utopia, but she is hoping for and working towards a cultural renewal for First Nations people. 
Popcorn Elder #3, graphite on paper by 
Mary McPherson
     “My desire to draw came as soon as I was able to hold a pencil,” Mary laughs. Born in December her mother decided to hold her back a year before school started, filling the time with all sorts of child crafts. By the age of four, Mary had already caught the artistic bug. Drawing was an important outlet. In high school it was her way of thinking, expressing, understanding and escaping. Influences upon larger themes later in life began in high school where racism was openly displayed. More white looking than native Mary witnessed racism directed at other First Nations students without feeling the brunt of the attack. She still felt hurt and confused by the incidents, stating circumspectly. “There’s that dichotomy between the native population and the non-native and it exists in the city, as well as high school.”
    But the effects of racism stayed with her. In her university studies Mary’s Indigenous research and love of art combined in a most fruitful way. Of one of her works, Modernity, No. 2, Mary says of the woman on the swing, “She is depicted on a colonial structure, the swing, while wearing a long skirt and short hair. There is a residential school in the background. This woman is subjected to the assimilation process. Meanwhile, the landscape is one of Lawren Harris’ vast and uninhabited landscapes. While Harris’ spirituality was embraced as a gem of national Canadian identity, the spirituality of the Indigenous peoples were being outlawed as the people were pushed off the land onto reserves.” 
Carried by the People #1,
graphite on paper 
by Mary McPherson
     A relatively new understanding is that our favoured artists, The Group of Seven and others, although not commissioned by the government for propaganda purposes, found their works popular in a country that still had a residual colonial mindset. At its core was the idea that our Canadian landscape was a pristine unpeopled landscape, a natural Eden for Europeans to explore and call their own. 
    You can see a video documentary by Isabel Smith on Mary McPherson HERE
     Furthering this thinking, and encapsulating her ideas visually, Mary writes of a work titled, Popcorn Elder, as a, “critique of what we know about contemporary Indigenous culture. Indigenous peoples, having been forced into a fast-paced assimilation process are left to determine their culture based on what is left. We have two sources: non-native historical interpretations of our way of life, and our Elders. Our Elders are considered to be the source of culture, and most of them will recall some ceremonies as young children as well as going to residential schools. Philosophies of Indigenous peoples are often missing from their teachings.”
     You can see why Mary at the young age of eighteen won the 2015 Governor General’s History Award in the Junior Art Category. And with plans to get a PhD and study law, “I feel like it could help me understand my artistic practice as well.” It’s no surprise to hear that Mary is committed to being a full time artist, educator and even an activist. 
     “Art for me is more or less a critical thinking process. It’s a matter of applying what I learn outside into a conceptual image. It helps to understand the world around me and to understand myself, especially as an indigenous woman.”
  Calico Coffeehouse on Bay and Algoma has six amazing works by Mary McPherson for the month of March. 
     Duncan Weller is a writer and visual known for his children’s books. You can write to him at Check out his new gallery, Rogue Planet Gallery, from Thursday to Saturday, 11am to 7pm at 118 Cumberland or drop by upstairs at the Country Market Saturday mornings. 

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