On a hot day in Dawson City this August, I had the opportunity to speak with the four artists of Weaving Voices: Bo Yeung, Chris Clarke, Jackie Olson and Sue Parsons.
We sat in the shade of their intricately woven willow structure located outside of the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, facing toward the Yukon River. The artists expressed their intentions for the installation and the importance of projects like these in healing a community.
Weaving Voices was funded by Partners in Arts, a charitable, volunteer-based corporation of Toronto art supporters.
The installation was part of a nation-wide initiative called LandMarks2017, which is a series of contemporary art projects inspired by nature with a focus on Canada’s 150th anniversary.
Weaving Voices includes two willow structures with audio recordings of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in citizens reflecting on their relationship to the settler community and to the land.
Clarke and Yeung were approached by the curator of LandMarks as Canadian artists. In the Weaving Voices pamphlet, it states that “[a]s non-indigenous artists residing in Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Traditional Territory, we question our complicity. We reflect on the many privileges colonialism has afforded us and at what cost.”
Olson is a Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in citizen and master willow weaver. Parsons is also a master willow weaver and has worked with Olson on multiple projects. They both helped realize the structures, which were designed by Yeung, and many community hands supported the filling in of the main structure. Clarke facilitated the interviews and sound design for the installation.
The artists’ intention for the structures is to provide safe spaces for people to sit, listen and reflect.
“Speak less, listen more, feel emotions and let them resonate within…” the artists say.
“The project is the beginning of another healing journey created through process,” Olson explains.
What she calls “evolving healing” is a community effort. The community collectively harvested the willow branches and river rocks. Members came by the structures after they were mostly built by the artists and wove in willow branches as “details” to the structures.
“I was blown away,” Yeung said. “The community really embraced the project.”
Parsons observed that, “People even talked about reconciliation while they were weaving willow.”
The two willow structures are noticeably different experiences.
“We call the structure we are sitting in the Live Structure,” the artists say. The Live Structure is inviting, with growing willow branches. It has a good atmosphere. People can look out over the river while taking in the words and stories of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Citizens.
“The river allows us to let go of our emotions,” Olson says.
The second structure, the Port-A-Willow Hut, does not have any green leaves and is a cocoon-like space located behind the Commissioners’ residence. Its window faces toward the old site of a residential school. The small structure provides privacy to feel emotions while listening to the audio.
There are three unique audio tracks in each willow structure, and both structures feature a single track of multiple people’s opinions and reflections about Canada’s 150th.
Twenty Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in citizens, ranging in age from 17 to 85-ish, also share stories and commentary on their relationships with the settler community, reflections on colonization, racism and looking forward to the future.
No names are mentioned on the audio track; citizens just speak their minds.
“It was appealing to the participants to not have to self-identify and to have their voices woven as they shared similar experiences,” Clarke says.
Reflective of the woven voices of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in citizens are the woven willow structures.
“Willow in and of itself is a survivor,” Olson says. “It is strong and will recover itself. It is also giving of itself.”
Building of the willow structures can also be interpreted as a representation for the impacts of colonization. The willow was cut down, disturbed, and is now taking root and creating a new space, or a new way.
The only reason the Live Structure is now growing is because the willow is being watered by the community. The artists have invited everyone to water the structures.
The structures will remain standing over the winter and through the 2018 season. For more information about the installation visit their “Weaving Voices” Facebook page.