A new collaborative art series between artist Jennifer Young and Inuk Elder Ellen Ford documents the stories of Ford’s life through encaustic paintings.
Young, a retired management consultant, spent most of her time working with Indigenous communities, including Ford’s daughter, Valeri Pilgrim, and it was during one of Pilgrim’s visits to Young’s studio in St. John’s that the idea for the series — titled UnikKausiga, an Inuttitut word meaning “my story” — was sparked.
Young says she was fascinated by Ford’s stories and wanted to work with her. As one non-Indigenous person Young said, she believes that working together to tell stories is an important part of the reconciliation process.
“We need Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working together to tell stories, understand them and understand their impact. And her stories are beautiful, it was just so easy to want to translate,” Young said.
Encaustic painting involves using a heated medium to create the artwork. For her paintings, Young fused beeswax and tree resin together and added layers to the paintings, scraping away layers of the wax to reveal the underlying colors, and even embedding wax molds and photographs printed on tissue paper.
Young had worked on encaustic maps of several places in the province, including Hebron, a resettled community north of Nain that is now a National Historic Site of Canada. When Pilgrim saw the map, she told Young about her mother’s connection to the area, and the series was born.
Stories from the heart
When Ford was first approached by Young, she said, she couldn’t believe anyone would want to tell her stories through their artwork, but she became intrigued and even a little excited about the process.
Ford told Young stories about her parents, who lived off the land, went to boarding schools in Labrador and went to St. Anthony, on Newfoundland’s northern peninsula. When Ford’s parents went to their assembly point in the winter, she stayed at the boarding school in Nain. When Ford was eight years old, there was no boarding school teacher in Nain and she had to attend Yale School in North West River.
“When I was growing up there were some tough times, but the best times I really enjoyed were when we went out on land and for most [of the year]. Then of course it was going back to school, which I wasn’t too picky about, but I went anyway because of course you listen to your parents,” Ford said.
Ford says she “couldn’t overcome” Young’s paintings and is proud of the work they’ve created together, with her favorite being about her story about going egg-laying – harvesting eggs from nests – with her sister on an island between Nain and Hopedale. .
Not all stories are happy. Young says one of her favorite pieces is about Ford’s relationships with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and how they have changed throughout her life.
Ford said no one ever took care of her in the boarding schools she grew up in, and she believes that’s why she didn’t learn to hug her kids until later in life and tell them she loved them.
“I used to see it in movies and I always wish there was someone who could come up to me and give me a hug and say they love me,” Ford said.
Telling her stories hasn’t always been easy for Ford, she said. She used to be shy like her father, she said, and when she was native she sometimes felt like she was “nothing” – but she doesn’t feel that way anymore and she understands that sharing her experiences can help others .
“It would definitely empower people if they told their stories. It empowers them to realize that their stories are out there…knowing that you’ve told your stories and that people understand,” Ford said.
The series includes 15 pieces so far, with more pieces to be completed. Eight of the pieces are on display at Juniper House, Memorial University’s native student services and programming center. The entire series will be on display at the Newfoundland and Labrador Craft Council from February 25 to April 1.
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