I first stumbled upon George Littlechild’s art at the Comox Valley Art Gallery in my hometown of Courtenay, British Columbia. After reeling from the emotional turmoil and historical reopening, rapprochement and reordering rendered in his bold and colourful brush strokes and integration of collage through archives, I was delighted further to learn that Littlechild resided right there, in my little town. After several years run by a city council dominated by career politicians and land developers, Courtenay has come to resemble the big box subsidiary that many other communities in Canada have become after non-local retailers move in to newly rezoned areas on the edges of so many of our towns. Discovering Littlechild’s art in such a post-Walmart landscape was like happening upon a multi-coloured bomb quietly igniting inside a grey, industrial chamber.
I interviewed Littlechild about his work and life some years ago here on Art Threat, but returned to Courtenay to talk with the articulate, generous and charming artist one more time, upon the occasion of his work being featured in a new beautiful art book that has recently been published in Canada.
The book, George Littlechild: The Spirit Giggles Within (cover image pictured below), is a magnificent volume in full-colour devoted solely to the master painter and collage artist George Littlechild. The book does well to present Littlechild’s vibrant mixed-media works, many of which are several meters across, and is curated thoughtfully, taking into account the artist’s history, his personal narratives and his fierce political voice. Littlechild is an artist that has been criminally overlooked by the established art-elite in this country, possibly because he hasn’t summoned his ego in full force to descend upon the parties and meetings in urban centres that one must attend to be taken notice of.
Or, perhaps because his work doesn’t fit neatly into “waves” or “categories” or other boxes we use to frame, judge, award, and organize art. Thankfully, this new book serves as a corrective to this oversight, and the volume goes a long way to situating Littlechild as the incredibly evocative and stirring treasure he is: his art speaks and screams from the pages as a creative individual, but also as a Canadian, and as a two-spirited First Nations person who has felt the violence of the settler state and has imaginatively re-purposed the archives not just to tell his own story, but that of his family’s and a larger community.
It is a fantastic introduction to his work and I remain in gratitude to the publishers, the curator, and to Littlechild, who once again, sat down with me one sunny day in Courtenay—a stone’s throw from another vulgar big box—coffee in hand and signature smile in place, and shared with me his thoughts and reflections at this juncture in his career and life.
Ezra Winton: Your art has been honoured in a new book that amounts to a career retrospective called, George Littlechild: The Spirit Giggles Within. Can you talk about your career?
George Littlechild: There are all these First Nations artists who have been categorized by curators, who fit into certain waves, but I’m not sure if I fit into any wave. I’ve always been the lone horse, outside of the group. As a child that bugged me, but as an adult it doesn’t really bother me at all because this is who I am. I produce the work I produce. Whether people in those genres notice or not, I know that what I’m doing is important.
Art is an intuitive process. When you’re an artist you become a director. The information ruminates in my head for months, things that I want to talk about, to make art about. And then it starts to evolve. My work evolves, it’s shifting, and it’s more contemporary than it was. I find that digital art brings forward statements that weren’t as obvious before. Who knows what’s coming up next with my career as an artist, or any of the artists who are out there right now. With the way the art world is progressing and moving, with new technology, we’re not confined anymore by traditional methods of art-making. There’s a real strength in that.
The challenge for me at this point in my career is to look at what I’ve done and to be able to be critical of my work and say, there’s so many things that I could’ve done differently, but this is what came out at that time. I’ve been in lots of great shows and exhibitions over the years, but as I was mentioning there are all these waves or different eras and perhaps I slipped through the cracks. But I’m glad that people take notice of what I do. I’m glad that people appreciate my art, that my art does have a voice and that sometimes it’s bigger than the sum of its parts. Because art is its own natural being, and we can’t control that.
Curators talk about art and say that this person or that person is at the top of the Canadian art scene, and these are the people who are making big waves. But there are all these other people who are doing marvelous, wonderful work that speaks to the same issues, and who really don’t get noticed, or may never get noticed in their lifetime. The art world is huge. There are so many artists and so many who want to share their message and what they believe in. So I’ve been fortunate with my career. Like I said, sometimes it’s okay being the lone horse.
In your introduction to the book you say that images sit with you in your thoughts for days, weeks, even years. An idea you start out with may fit into one wave of art, but by the time you finish it you’re in a whole other wave. At the same time, waves are just ways of boxing people into categories, right?
Exactly. And I think that’s where the curator comes in. It must be a hard task. I don’t think I want to be a curator because you have to categorize and box people in. So what kind of work have I made? I have to look at all of it and ask what’s come forward. The book is a little bit like my thesis: this is what I’ve been doing all these years. It’s been good to look at and critique what I’ve done. Did I hit the mark? Did the works really speak about the issues I was thinking about? In my mind they did.
I think about Idle No More and how people have been coming forward en masse. When I was a young man I was thinking about the same things. I’m almost 55, and I was thinking about all this when I was 20. It just started coming forward in my art, all these political and social statements about things that I saw around me. I sometimes just felt alone, wondering if anybody else noticed the same things, and looking at the naivety or the ignorance of the public around me. Now there is more awareness. Though something I have noticed since Idle No More is how racist some people are. In some ways people were more politically correct before.
You mentioned how important the book is for you. I always think when books about artists come out that they’re for everybody else, a gift that we can look at and enjoy in our homes. I never thought about how important it is for you, too. You said it’s like taking stock and seeing where you’re going. When you see it all in one place, do you see a progression? Does it help you understand where you’ve been as an artist and where you’re going? How does it feel when you look at it all in one volume like this?
There’s a paternal sense of, wow, look at what I’ve done. But not in a vain way. It’s about what I was capable of doing and the fact that I’ve been so committed, for 22 years, and I’ve never given up being an artist. I’m nearly 55. Freedom 55. I haven’t worked for anybody in years and I managed to put food on the table, pay the bills, do some travelling, have a life. There have been some ups and downs, don’t get me wrong, but I can look at the book and say, I’ve done this, this is my thesis, this is what I believe.
For me this book has been a wonderful tool that bridges communities that perhaps wouldn’t have known about this type of art or known about First Nations issues at all. It’s about lending a voice to First Nations communities, where people can say, I can relate, I can identify. I’m not saying that any one person is the voice for the people, because that is also a trap. It’s important to realize you’re part of a community.
Your work is also deeply personal. I think it’s fairly obvious when looking at it that you’re not always just speaking for a community or a history. It’s also coming from a very personal place.
I wanted to give the book a personal voice so that people could relate and have some understanding of one First Nations person’s story. The walls of ignorance have to be knocked down. How can we remain ignorant in a country like this? I’m aware of what happened to the Japanese Canadians and to so many different people through the Second and First World Wars in Canada. This country is not without its blemishes, and those blemishes are still here, no matter what you do and no matter how Harper apologizes for the residential school system, how he apologizes to the survivor’s families.
For me it’s really important that as First Nations people we tell our own stories. There are so many books that talk about First Nations history or different cultural groups. Northwest coast artists and Northwest coast artifacts have been written about in book after book. There is so much misinformation and so much of it is incorrect. But there are more and more First Nations curators. It’d be nice to see these curators taking it further.
Your work engages archival materials in many ways—as history, artifacts, inspiration, allegory. Can you talk about how you use archives and how they’re incorporated into your work?
Archives are a place where you can look at records and artifacts, and realize these could be your great-grandfather’s. This was a scraping tool that your great-grandmother might have used to take the hairs off a hide.
When I look at photographs I always experience a crazy, psychic energy. It’s about being able to tell their story. When I started, I’d find photographs with no names. There’d be a lot of rows of faces and I’d find the names belonging to those faces, because to me they weren’t just faces, they were individuals, they had a story, they lived. I’d go back to the reserve and talk to elders. It’s actually been a wonderful way to get to know people. I’d meet someone, and right away I’d be sure our great-grandparents were brothers or sisters, and I’d be able to say, I have a picture of your grandmother, would you like it? It’s about being able to give.
In the Cree culture, the culture of my mother, there was a tradition called the giveaway. Basically the honour was to give all your earthly possessions away, and you’d go home to an empty house. But being able to give also means being able to receive, because you’d go to another giveaway and slowly build up all your stuff again, or you would work and obtain more things. To me that’s an art. It’s in the education process, too, being able to give so that you can receive some other person’s life.
I’ve been very blessed and fortunate with the things that have come my way as far as research is concerned, finding rare things. I put a lot of energy into it. I am a consummate researcher.
You also incorporate your findings more directly into your art.
More directly, and using collage. The thing about the archives is a lot of people say, how dare they have these images of our people. Well, if they weren’t there, where would they be? We’re lucky that we can actually go to a place where there’s a depository of all these images. To me what’s really exciting is being able to say, this is where an image came from, and this is how it’s documented. As an artist I have taken that information and reformulated it. Now it’s documented with a different approach. It has a new story. So it’s about story, too.
Sometimes you’ll juxtapose the realism of a photograph in a collage with more abstract shapes.
To me, there’s a real beauty in creating this kind of portrait. I remember using a photo of a great-grandmother of mine, painting right over it but leaving the eyes, so that the eyes were still showing from the photo. It had this power. It was almost as if she became alive.
Who are your influences, or who are other artists you admire who may not be direct influences?
Terrance Houle is an amazing artist. He’s in the now, he’s in the moment, he’s getting lots of exposure. He does more performance art. He does this amazing photography where he’s in his traditional regalia and he’s got a shopping cart. To me he’s someone I wish I could be. The beauty of him is there’s no ego there. When you talk to him, he’s present, he’s fun, he acknowledges you. I just don’t get the ego thing, because art is collaborative. We forget the human condition. For too many years we’ve put certain artists on a pedestal. When I think of Terrance Houle I think, here’s this younger guy, he’s got a strong vision, a statement, he’s so accurate and bang on. Someone who’s reaching the masses in a totally different way.
I like Brian Jungen’s work. And a new guy who I’ve found is Shawn Hunt, whose work is really amazing, kind of in the same spin as Lawrence Paul. Someone who really touched my life was Joan Cardinal-Schubert. I like people without ego.There are several other two-spirited artists in the First Nations art world, like me. That’s a whole other issue, looking at the people who produce that body of work. It’s really about beauty and why somebody who’s two-spirited might be so attracted to beauty through art. There’s a different voice with two-spirited First Nations artists, and a different way of approaching art. The work of most of the two-spirited people in the First Nations art community is aesthetically very strong. For example, Adrian Stimson is doing some amazing performance art pieces.
What is it like having these layers of identity you speak of, and living in such a small community? Does it present unique challenges?
No, it doesn’t. This is a place of calm, and this is where I live. I can go to the city where I used to live and get the rush that I need. I don’t need a fancy studio to make art. We just moved so I’m turning a garage into my studio. It’s full of boxes. If there was one light bulb, I’d be happy. I look at other artists and their studios are a lot more amazing. Would that make my work better? Maybe. But in a smaller centre, people are nice to you. Nobody looks sideways at you. I like that. I like the fact that I can just be myself here. I like that I can be anonymous and not really be known in my community. I forget that I live here, because I really don’t get involved.
And yet you do community work around education. You teach kids and run workshops, locally.
There’s a fine line for me. Being an art educator wasn’t what I was going to do, but there’s another gift that I was born with. It’s intuitive, it’s innate, and that’s how I teach. I’m more of an intuitive instructor. The magic is in bringing forward something profound from young people. I was up in Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay in Alberta, working with First Nations youth. They’re doing some of the most amazing work. They’re so talented.Being an educator has been a great experience for me. It’s actually helped me survive as an artist. Without that, I’m living off art sales alone! At one time I actually lived off art sales and rarely applied for grants. I don’t even apply now. I don’t want to rely on the government to continue what I do, rather than doing it on my own. I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at.
As for education, for me the beauty is seeing a student, whether they’re an adult or a child, light up when you give a suggestion or a new approach or a new way of seeing what they’re doing and how they’re creating. Many educators will say that they’re fed by their students. You don’t have all the answers, but as a group, as a collective, we do. That’s the most amazing thing about being an educator.
In the beginning of the book you talk about how you had to prove yourself as a First Nations man at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, back in the day. I’m wondering if you think things have changed. Are there more opportunities for aboriginal artists in Canada, or in interactions with Canadian education institutions?
I think things have changed a lot. Forty years ago I wouldn’t be teaching in a classroom at Emily Carr, an institution that really reveres the First Nations students that have gone through its program. There are so many First Nations artists now. They’re really talented and have a way of seeing things, and a way of putting forward their creative base in a way that is quite strong. I find that a lot of First Nations artists have a natural drive and ability. There have been many group exhibitions of First Nations artists and it continues to grow. The National Art Gallery is having a show about indigenous artists from around the world. There is a real awareness of First Nations artists, and quite an acceptance. There has been a real appreciation shown towards First Nations art in Canada.
The larger context is that there have been a lot of cuts to the arts in Canada. Even though the Conservatives haven’t cut the Canada Council for the Arts, it is still, by all accounts, death by a thousand cuts, and part of that defunding process has been targeted cuts to art schools and institutions.
Sometimes I wonder how so many of us are still managing to create art and make art. What are people doing to manage to put food on the table? I don’t know. But the art still continues to come forward, some really strong, amazing art. There seems to be so many new young people coming forward.
I’ve noticed that some of the new or younger artists, especially First Nations artists, are engaging more with contemporary social and political issues around race, belonging and inequity, but that the past is always present. In your work it’s almost as if the present informs the past, whereas with the younger artists, the past informs the present.
That’s a good observation, because I had to go back to the reserve, I had to experience, I had to relearn. I saw what happened to my family members who went to residential schools. For some people there’s a disconnect. It’s so far away, it’s like looking through glass. They’re trying to find things that perhaps aren’t as tangible. Perhaps their family completely lost their identity and it was never talked about. Whereas I lived it.
I could not hide who I was as a kid. It was part of my life. But younger generations are actually getting driven away from that truth. If you haven’t experienced true racism you may never know what that’s like. If you’ve never been lost or been taken from your culture, you’ll never truly know what that’s like. But you can empathize, take elements of that history and create a new approach to looking at the past. Maybe things have changed with people not having experienced as much as some of the old guys. Like Alex Janvier, who lived on a reserve and went to the residential school. Like Norval Morriseau, now there’s a story. Like Daphne Odjig, she’s a saint. We’re so lucky she’s still working, and continuing a sacred art practice within a contemporary form.
I think young people are still experiencing it. It’s just not the same experience. They’re a new generation and they’re different. But your work is out there and this book is out there, allowing the past to remain present. It is expressed through your art, allowing new artists to engage with the past.
I want to ask you about something Ryan Rice says in the introduction to the book. He talks about your work’s ability to resist, disarm and remember a tumultuous history of colonial injustices. Resisting, disarming and remembering characterize a lot of what you do. Can you comment on these three aspects of your work?
Well, you can never forget what happened. Although I think the level of ignorance here in Canada still hasn’t truly shifted. The story has to be told to bear witness to what happened, that these things really happened in First Nations–colonial history, so that it’s never forgotten.
Doing things in a disarming way allows people to look at this history, and to own it. Just because you’re not First Nations doesn’t mean you’re not part of it, because you are. You are part of First Nations Canadian history because you’re Canadian. It’s not about us and them; it’s about all of us, together. In Cree you say niya, that’s me, and kiya, that’s you, and kiyanaw, that’s we, that’s us. All of us together. We need to address these issues and continue to disarm and say, let’s get together, let’s negotiate, let’s talk. I think about how after so many years this country is still trying to negotiate the lines between what’s a reserve, what’s not a reserve, land claim, non-land claims. Let’s introduce different ways to describe these people who inhabited this land before the settlers arrived.
As for resisting, well, that’s the whole thing. An artist is a political individual. Being political and being an artist go hand in hand. Being an artist and talking about art and creating images informs your beliefs on the raping of the forest, the pillaging, or the residential schools, whatever issues come forward. As an artist you talk about those injustices, you own them. They don’t leave my head. I live in that stuff.
I’m not a protester, but when someone put something on Facebook about having a rally at Simms Park in Courtney, as part of Idle No More, it just spoke to me. John Duncan (former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs) and I, we got out. We just ran and got all the things on and grabbed a drum. We didn’t really know what we were doing or why we were doing it. We found ourselves at Simms Park with just seven other people. So we had our little event and walked out into the street to John’s office, banging our drums. Then a few weeks later there was a massive crowd.
That’s a kind of brave resistance. Because there’s strength in numbers, and when you’re a diminutive group like that, it takes a lot of strength and courage.
Yeah. And then there were more rallies in town, and they got bigger and bigger. At Cliffe Avenue and 17th Street there were probably 150 people, with different types of regalia, banging drums and singing. It was really beautiful. It wasn’t about being from the Northwest coast. It was about people coming forward with First Nations people, people who were willing to stand up for this cause, to fight for Mother Earth, to fight for water, to fight for First Nations issues. It was a powerful thing.
You do express resistance in your art, but it’s a different thing altogether to put on your shoes and hit the pavement. Okay, one final question: why did you call your book The Spirit Giggles Within?
Because there’s this crazy joy, there’s this crazy kid inside of me that loves having fun—a bit of a bad boy.
And a playfulness.
Yeah. And that kid comes out in the art. That kid has gotten me through life. If I didn’t have that crazy kid who still likes to laugh and have joy, I wouldn’t be who I am today.