Walking the Elements: The Chu Niikwän Artist Residency is back at Arts Underground in Whitehorse

Born in 2018 from a collaboration between the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, the Yukon Arts Centre and Arts undergrounds, the Chu Niikwän (meaning the Yukon River in Southern Tutchone) Artist Residency selects three visual artists and provide them with a space to work over three weeks. Supported by curators Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé and Heather LeDuc, the nominated artists created several new pieces. After months of work, three artists–Rebecca Manias, Kim Roberts and Sheelah Tolton– are exhibiting the fruits of their residencies, a show entitled Elemental Transformations.

For this edition of the residency, the curators chose not to provide a specific theme, but rather to allow the artists the freedom to work on whatever moved them.

“For Heather and I, it was very important to let the artists guide the residency. When you have freedom, your art can go in any directions. You can show your passion in your work, try new techniques and propose projects of your own interest,” explains Vander Meer-Chassé.

“All artists are working with the four elements and a social awareness aspect,” observes LeDuc, a choice which came about organically as part of the residency.

An interior designer and architect by trade, Tolton crafted unconventional birdhouses in clay. Aiming to question conformist human housing choices, Tolton’s idea emerged from the observing an interesting phenomena:

“Birdhouses are a man-made home built into the aftermath of ecosystem and habitat destruction resulting from the construction of our own homes … often created as a miniature fantasy of the owner’s concept of an ideal home,” Tolton said.

“What does a condo mean as a home? What are the practical considerations?” she asks. “I wanted to explore the boundaries of birdhouse and human home, dream and reality”.

Manias drew inspiration from the Yukon River, calling on its intensity to influence their compositions.

“This (Yukon River) felt connected to my own work. … I view myself as a strongly fluid person and believe that people and other living creatures do not all fit the gender binary constructs that have been popularized in the last few centuries. I believe it is our fluidity and dynamism that gives us our true creative potential,” Manias says.

“The body is not the focus, or used in an exploitative manner, as often happens with individuals who are seen as ‘other’ in popular western art history,” they say.

“It is a unique concept, not so commercially friendly… I would encourage the public to keep an open mind about what traditional portrait should be, and how we base our first impressions on appearance.”

Roberts tackled both fire and air in her stained glass work. Roberts, who started stained glass and mosaics work ten years ago, is primarily self-taught, and took her time at the residency as an opportunity to develop her skills.

“It is the first time I have the chance to focus my attention on my art. When you are working full-time, you have to put your art work down unfortunately. The residency opened my eyes, I definitely want to be doing more art,” confesses Roberts.

The artists offered a sneak peak of their work at Wondercrawl, an art crawl held along the Whitehorse waterfront last September. However, this new show highlights their creations from a different perspective.

“They thought about their pieces, things have grown and expanded since then. It is not just a quick one-off, but the results of months in the making. Lots of time and energy in this work,”Vander Meer-Chassé says.

“It is a thoughtful and colourful exhibit. I am super excited about the result! I encourage the public to come in with an open mind and understand what the artists are trying to convey. It is going to be good!”

Elemental Transformations is on now at Arts Underground in Whitehorse until November 24. More information on their website: artsunderground.ca.

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