Splashes of lavish roses, the bared teeth of an outraged woman, purple light bouncing off a moonlit lake, portraits of people happily stick gambling, and scenes of the horrors of residential school—all appear in the paintings of Mary Caesar. Her artwork has visual, thematic and international range.
“I create art to tell my story about my experience in the residential school, and art helps me to heal”, said Caesar. “I also create art because it’s my passion.”
Caesar’s creative passion has many outlets. “I work in acrylics. I also create other styles and forms of art: Kaska Dena culture, landscapes, portraits, abstract …” Caesar also sews traditional beaded garments, skills she learned from her parents Alfred and Minnie who were also instrumental in re-enforcing the teachings as a whole of the Kaska Dena.
In her artwork, Caesar combines these traditional studies with travel and academics in the south. “I studied Fine Art for four years at Malaspina University-College, in Nanaimo, and received my Fine Art Diploma,” Caesar reflects. “I learned discipline, how to persevere with completing my art assignments.” While at school she studied sculpture, ceramics, painting, photography and Earth art.
Caesar has never been limited to one medium; she is an artist and a published writer and poet. She is a Kaska Dena, Liard First Nation mother and grandmother belonging to the Wolf Clan. Her works with acrylics and oils often portray traditional and contemporary Kaska Dena people and lifestyles, still life, images from her days in the Lower Post Residential School, in B.C., and her experiences as a First Nation woman. Caesar’s vivid and glowing landscape paintings are her observations of the Yukon—her home. “The artists that influenced me were Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Emily Carr. I have painted for the past twenty years,” Caesar shared. “My art is a part of my healing journey in the residential school system, how it has affected my life.
“I feel it’s important to tell my story. It’s part of Canada’s history and it should never be forgotten.”
Traumfänger Verlag, which is a German publishing company, agreed that this part of history should not be forgotten and, in 2014, published Caesar’s book, My Healing Journey, meine Reise zur Heilung: Überleben in der Residential School.
“My connection with Germany and Switzerland started in September 2005,” recalled Caesar. “I traveled to Switzerland with ten other Yukon First Nations artists and exhibited my art at Nordamerika Native Museum in Zurich, Switzerland”. The connections with Europe continued in 2010, when Caesar traveled to Germany “with three people from the Yukon, for a six-week art project.” She added, “In March 2014, I was invited to go to Germany by my publisher.”
Other publications by Caesar include “Northern Sky Dancers” in Poetry For Northern Learners. Theytus Books, League of Canadian Poets, Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and the Yukon University library have also published her poems.
Perhaps Caesar’s work goes far and wide, not only because it is beautiful and powerful but also because Caesar has strong intentions: “My work is my personal response to my past and present environment.
“It’s really important for me to paint my personal struggles.”
Caesar has participated in several major exhibitions, including Traditions of Change (Nordamerika Native Museum in Zurich, Switzerland), in 2005; Nanghághinda (Watch Over the Earth) at Yukon Arts Center Public Art Gallery (Whitehorse, in 2003); and in Raven Trix, also at the Yukon Art Center Public Art Gallery (2001).
I had to ask Caesar about her connection to another beloved Yukon painter, Ted Harrison (1926–2015). Harrison was one of Caesar’s earlier art teachers. Caesar remembers him fondly. She said, “Ted Harrison was a gentle, humble human being, artist and teacher. He treated us First Nations artists with respect and kindness.”
Carrying this respect and kindness forward, Caesar shared this encouragement: “To other artists, my advice would be to persevere with your art, work hard and never give up!”
Caesar is active in the Yukon’s Artist in the School program—meaning your child’s school could invite Caesar to teach art as a guest teacher! She is also a member of the Yukon Art Society—meaning you can purchase Caesar’s artwork at Arts Underground at 15-305 Main Street in Whitehorse. She often has both beadwork and paintings available there, or available by commission. You can also find Mary Caesar on Facebook or through Travel Yukon (also on Facebook).