The power of art

Recently we met with Victoria Fred (lawyer, art lover and collector, and dancer and drum carrier for the Dakhká Khwáan) to discuss what collecting art means to her. Victoria is Tlingit from the Gaanaxtei.di Clan and a citizen of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation.

Dance rattle,
by Calvin Norberg

What art do you collect?

I began collecting art in the late 1980s when I lived in the Northwest Territories. Over the last 15 years I have focused on acquiring pieces from Yukon First Nation artists.

My collection of Yukon First Nation art includes paintings from Jackie Olson (Tr’ondëk Hwech’in First Nation), Jean Taylor (Daklaweidi) from Teslin Tlingit Council, Shirley Adamson (Daklaweidi) from Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, and lifelike sketches created by my brother Clifton Fred (Gaanaxtei.di) from the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. I am equally proud to bring into my home carvings created by young and inspiring Tlingit artists, Jared Kane (Gaanaxtei.di) from Ta’an Kwäch’än Council and Calvin Morberg (Daklaweidi) from Teslin Tlingit Council.

I particularly like to support Yukon First Nation artists because I view my collection as a way of investing in our First Nation communities. I enjoy collecting from Yukon First Nation artists who grow through their art, strive for excellence, challenge themselves, tell stories in their pieces and take pride in the journey. It’s all so very inspiring.

What do you mean when you say art tells a story?

Most, if not all, of the pieces that I have collected or commissioned have a story of sorts. Whether it is the picture of Sedna, the Inuit Sea goddess and caretaker of marine life, or the painted regalia apron I commissioned from Jared Lutchman (Gaanaxtei.di) Carcross/Tagish First Nation where the image connects me to my ancestral homelands of Marsh Lake and to the woodworm story (Gaanaxtei.di first potlatch), highlighting the importance of my daughter, the next generation.

Then there are those pieces where the image and story continue to give in so many ways. I have a charcoal sketch brought to life by Shirley Adamson. As a history major who went on to study law, I find this particular piece relays the complexities of a clashing society and competing cultures, and it raises questions about justice during the turn of the 20th century. The piece reflects the 1898 hanging of two Gaanaxtei.di men, Jim and Dawson Nantuck (Raven moiety). The beauty of the piece is the transformation of the Gaanaxtei.di man as his Raven spirit leaves his body in the piece, and also what the discovery of this story in 2000 meant for my particular family. Through the discovery of the Nantuck remains in Dawson City in 2000, the story raised questions and stimulated efforts within my family to revitalize our Tlingit stories and Gaanaxtei.di ties.

One piece of art that I recently commissioned from Lumel Studios represents an important childhood memory of family, community harvest and the love of salmon (pictured above). This piece is one of my absolute favorites. Using the smoothness and good energy of blown glass, it shows what the salmon represent for Tlingit and for all Yukon First Nations: sustenance and teachings and the generosity of the Southern Tutchone people. This piece I hold close to my heart. It reminds me of my time as a little girl watching my uncle Alfie gaff salmon at Klukshu. This was when salmon was plentiful. Today there are hardly any salmon. The piece reminds me that salmon is life. It didn’t just feed us, but was also used to pass traditional teachings. I recall my Aunt Dianne telling me that elders used to hang fish ears on babies’ ears to give them special qualities like the ability to be good listeners. The glass salmon reminds me of these stories and our coming together as a community but also of the changes to the environment.

Victoria Fred and her daughter Sabrina, in regalia

What is the connection between art and regalia?

Regalia is a storyboard. It identifies who we are, as a member of a clan, a community, as a people, our place in society, our identity. There are protocols relating to regalia. For example, as a Gaanaxtei.di, I need to be careful not to wear emblems that belong to other clans of the Raven moiety within the Tlingit Nation. As a Raven (Yéil), I also cannot wear emblems that belong to my opposite, those who belong to the Gooch (Wolf) clans.
I view regalia as living art, where the spirit of the art comes alive. And regalia can transform a person’s spirit and their whole energy. This is one of the joys I have when I see my daughter in her regalia or dancing a headdress. For these reasons I am forever grateful for the strength, passion and commitment of the late Doris McLean and her daughter Marilyn Jensen, whose efforts have made it possible for children, young people and their families to grow through the work of the Skookum Jim Dancers and the Dakhká Khwáan.

How is art powerful?

Art invites conversation.
For example, someone may ask about the special beadwork on my moccasins, or about the healing totem pole at the foot of Main Street in Whitehorse, which represents a point in time when Yukon First Nations began reclaiming space and elevating the celebration of our identity and culture.

Art has power and energy.
I always believe that art carries a part of the energy and spirit of the hands and heart that creates the piece. I have had experiences where art pieces can carry a strong draw, a strong positive energy – that makes you want to be around them all the time. The Raven/Frog piece I acquired from Jared Kane has such energy. I always smile and feel good when I say good morning to it at my office.

Art continues to inspire me.
In particular Yukon First Nation art and the artists themselves continue to inspire me and make me more hopeful for the future. When I reflect back of the experiences of my grandmother’s generation and the limitations imposed on our culture and communities, on our potlatch systems, the inability to sing our songs or speak our language, I see Yukon First Nation carvers as storytellers who are aware of our history, but have used their gifts as doorways to celebrate our stories, our identity and have elevated our culture to new heights, unapologetically. 

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