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Indigenous Artists in Our Region

Liana Wheeldon
BY Liana Wheeldon
(1 Vote)

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is fortunate to have a large variety of Indigenous artists who work in traditional forms and contemporary mediums to honour their culture and share their history. Our region is situated on the traditional territories of the Cree, Dene, and Métis people and there are artists from a variety of Nations making up our Indigenous Arts community.

In this article, we touch on a small cross-section of passionate and talented Indigenous artists making an impact in our community, on personal, local and provincial levels.

Arts Council Wood Buffalo (ACWB) works alongside artists from a variety of backgrounds and is guided by a volunteer board of eleven Directors representing all the arts disciplines, community, Business / Industry / Non-profit, Métis, and First Nations. ACWB’s mandate is to champion investment in the arts in our region, building the skills and profiles of our artists through continuous learning, advocacy, and collaborating to create showcasing opportunities. The Wood Buffalo Excellence in Arts Awards is our most fun advocacy tool for the arts – it is an awards event like no other! The annual event showcases performances, visual art, literary arts, and connects the community to our regional emerging and established artists. There are 14 awards categories recognizing all arts disciplines, including Rising Star for youth, Indigenous Arts, Fine Craft, arts education and administration, as well as Lifetime Achievement.

ACWB’s three staff members are available to assist artists in connecting with a variety of resources, understanding funding opportunities, networking events, Business of the Arts workshops, or any arts consultation, or inquiry, they require.


Julia McDougall

ACWB’s First Nations representative, Julia McDougall, joined the board in 2016. Julia was raised on her family’s trap-line in Wood Buffalo National Park, speaks fluent Cree, and is a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation from Fort Chipewyan.  As a long-time resident of Fort McMurray, Julia shares her culture and her language in the community through many volunteer projects and as a teacher with the Fort McMurray Public School District.  She has taught both Elementary and High School students, and is currently one of the six Walking Together Consultants working with the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

The Walking Together project is engaging local Indigenous communities by establishing regional advisory committees that include representation from elders and local knowledge keepers. This process will ensure that the professional development programs and resources developed include regionally specific content for teachers. In spring 2018, newly developed workshops will be offered to school jurisdiction representatives in a “train the trainer” model to facilitate knowledge sharing throughout the province.

The Walking Together consultants, along with the guidance of Indigenous communities, have developed workshops and resources to provide teachers with the foundational knowledge of First Nations, Métis and Inuit as outlined in Alberta Education’s new Teaching Quality Standard.

Art is closely connected to identity and culture for Indigenous artists. As Julia says: “Art is a self-expression and we need art in our everyday life.” Learning to do beadwork was “a part of life, the sharing of history and culture”.

She has received the Cultural Award from the Regional Aboriginal Recognition Awards as well the Lois Birkenshaw-Fleming Creative Teacher Scholarship from the Royal Conservatory of Music. Julia brings her experience to the workshops she leads and guides participants to understand the cultural significance of handcrafts even as they make them. Julia enjoys volunteering with Imagine A Canada, the national art and essay competition that asks young people to share their thoughts on what the future of Canada would look like through the lens of reconciliation.


Carmen Wells

ACWB’s Métis representative Carmen Wells, one of the 2018 Girls Inc. Women of Inspiration nominees, has been on the Arts Council Wood Buffalo board since 2014. Carmen also serves her community as the Regulatory Manager with McMurray Métis:  “As a member and staff of McMurray Métis, I have been working on connecting the Métis community to the arts community in Wood Buffalo. There are many resources that artists can access through the Arts Council, and I hope the Métis community will take advantage of them.”

Carmen used to be very involved in the arts, creating and exhibiting, but has seen her productivity dwindle since the Horse River Wildfire in 2016. Although she is working on some projects, it is at a much slower pace. Carmen has a diploma in graphic design where she learned illustration skills however she credits her strong technical skills, to the instruction of Erin Schwab, the Art and Design Certificate instructor at Fort McMurray’s Keyano College.

“The program taught by Erin is an incredible commitment and very challenging process, but you come out so much stronger on the other side if you dedicate yourself,” Carmen says. “I find you can learn a lot by exploring, trying things and ideas, and see where it takes you.”

Carmen believes: “Creating art for me is a means of expressing myself, bringing conversations to the community. It’s a bit like meditation, giving your hands the freedom to move and react to what is happening on your piece. Working through problems of the project by moving through it, physically working with the subject until it says what it is supposed to say. Ninety per cent of art is the process, not the finished brushstrokes. There is a lot of thinking and problem solving involved. I express myself in most things I do, but this is a very different and unique way of communication.”

Carmen would love to see Indigenous art in our community come to life: “We have a very large, active, and vibrant Indigenous community in Wood Buffalo. Having more showcasing opportunities, and interaction between artists and the general community, will create a better awareness and understanding of our region to visitors and residents, while creating beautiful spaces that enhance living in our region.”

Carmen works with painting, drawing, and printmaking mediums, and was one of 28 local artists selected to create a fox sculpture installed on the Total Aboriginal Interpretive Trail, located at the entrance to MacDonald Island. This Public Art space also features seven large-scale sculptures created by Western Canadian Indigenous Artists, two from Fort McMurray: winner of the 2017 Wood Buffalo Excellence in Arts Awards for Indigenous Arts, Treasure Cooper, and Frederick McDonald, former Alberta Foundation for the Arts Board member.


Shawn McClure

Shawn McClure is a resident of Fort McKay and is known across Alberta for his soapstone sculptures. His artwork is featured in a number of businesses throughout Wood Buffalo and Alberta. Shawn’s current practice consists primarily of sculpture and carving although he has a passion for drawing and creating tattoos. His soapstone sculptures range in size from one inch squared to nine feet tall. Shawn also does intricate carvings on antlers from various animals found in his community. 


Helen Moore

Originally from Fort Smith, local artist Helen Moore came to Fort McMurray in 1991 and has been part of the community participating in many cultural events, Indigenous educational programs, and sharing her artworks.

For Helen, creating art is: “Following what makes you happy. I believe we are all given talents and, if we listen to our intuition and are mindful of what makes us feel fulfilled, we can then use these gifts.”

Helen’s mother used to sew clothing for the family and Helen learned to sew also. She has made a lot of Halloween costumes over the years and “too many blankets to count”.  Helen also credits a wonderful high school art teacher for encouraging her enjoyment of art and making it a part of her lifestyle. Helen says: “I have always enjoyed working with my hands and have refinished furniture, made miniature teepees and log cabins. I enjoy trying new things and when I started making dream catchers, I loved the way they could all be so different.”

Helen occasionally showcases her work at the local markets in Fort McMurray but is not actively involved with any art groups currently. She ran the full circle mentoring program for two years with Big Brothers Big Sisters, but hasn’t worked since undergoing double bypass heart surgery in 2014. “I keep busy crafting and being a Kokum to my three beautiful grandchildren: Triston, Tori, and Brielle.”

Helen’s hope for arts in our community is to see more collaboration and display.  Helen says: “I love murals and large sculptures, and we need more Indigenous art displayed in public to represent our region. Also interactive art that can look beautiful and be a place of fun and discovery for children.”


Claire Antoine

Claire Antoine is one of three RMWB artists represented in Alberta Branded, the art gallery store located in the Alberta Legislative Assembly in Edmonton. She was also a participant in the RMWB’s igNIGHT Art Illuminated exhibition in 2017. Her contribution depicted three animals – the wolf, moose, and beaver, created in two versions: one whole and one hollow. While the former is meant to celebrate these beautiful creatures, the latter reminds us to care for, and conserve, our environment so they do not disappear.

Born in the Northwest Territories via midwife on her parents’ trap-line, Claire Antoine moved to Fort Smith at the age of four to live in foster care. There, Claire took to art and craft, as she loves to imagine and create. At the age of 16, she moved back home with her parents to live and learn the traditional way of life on the trapline, where she felt most at home.

Since moving to Fort McMurray in 2004, Claire has begun reconnecting with her love of art. Her vision is to create paintings of sights that she has seen, and been a part of, living on the land, that younger generations of today may never be able to experience, from a lifestyle that is fading.


Jessica Powder

Jessica Powder is a Cree artist living and working in Fort Chipewyan.  There are many artists in Jessica’s family and she learned techniques from YouTube and books. Art started as a hobby for her after she woke up from a dream and began drawing.  From her love of creating, Jessica’s art practice has grown into being commissioned to create artwork for residents of Fort Chipewyan and supporting the social profit and volunteer sectors with inclusion of her painting in FuseSocial’s 2018 Timeraiser Art Auction.

Jessica shares art with students aged five to15 at Athabasca Delta Community School, teaching art classes, with her Mom interpreting through sign language and spoken word, and partnering with the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Learning Through The Arts program in the school. Jessica says: “I hope Arts programs are promoted in all the schools in the Wood Buffalo Region.”

Interview with Local Indigenous Artist, Frederick McDonald


What does creating art mean for you?

Art for me is an existential relationship with the cosmos, with time and history, with my people – past and present, with the future, in a manner that is positive and dialectic with a slant towards being unreservedly didactic.

Of course, this life I’ve chosen is a lifestyle because I think as an artist, I look at history in relation to ‘the everyday’ as an artist and I try to relate that which I am thinking in an artistic manner.


Where did you learn to create?

Art started for me basically in high school art class. It is there that our art teacher, Mr. Breeze, allowed me to paint and guided me in the principles of media, composition and narrative. This start was followed up years later when I acquired a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees in painting from the University of Calgary. I was a full-time artist for 15 years before coming back to Fort McMurray where I once again worked in the oil industry as the CEO of the Fort McKay Group of Companies.


How are you currently involved in the arts?

At the present time I am a full-time artist and I work only on private commissions. I have taken to writing poetry along with continuing to paint and continuing to explore photography. My motto for my work is: “life, spirituality and history through art!”

I don’t participate with any schools at this time, but I have done so on many occasions in the past from the elementary level to the high school level. This part of my arts experience has shown it to be very time-consuming and draws a lot out of my spirit so I tend to stay away from this most of the time.

I have been on many kinds of boards and selections committees across Canada and have worked with museums and art galleries on exhibits and with their collections. At this particular time, I am a board member of the Portage College Museum and Artifacts Committee. It is a dynamic and precedent setting environment with their latest exhibit and book release highlighting the Aboriginal Group of Seven.


Are you creating or aiding the arts on a local, provincial or national level or have you done so in the past?

I have been a board member for the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and as I said in my previous answer I have served on other boards and committees of arts organizations. There are things in the works right now that I am a part of that I can’t address at this time. I am excited about the art world from the Aboriginal perspective as I am seeing more great artists coming from many communities right across Canada, including Fort McMurray. But, I am nervous about the economic environment and how this can or cannot support the arts moving forward.


What do you hope the future of the arts look like in the Wood Buffalo region?

This is an interesting and timely question for our region and the main reason for this is that I totally believe that a permanent art gallery and/or cultural center focused on visual arts is overdue and absolutely needed in our city. I know that our present mayor and most of the councilors have committed at some level to growing the arts in our community and have a focus towards building an art gallery.

Yes, the art hall at MacDonald Island is okay, but it is not an art gallery in as much as it is shoe storage and a walkway from one building to the next. We need a place that our community can be proud to call it their art gallery. A place where our school can take students to learn about the arts and to explore the perspective of artists from our community, and from the world community, here in a local setting.

Suffice to say that with the present city’s administration and their verbal or written commitment to building an art gallery here I encourage everyone to talk with the mayor and or with the councilors every chance they have about achieving this one goal!