M’CHIGEENG – Debajehmujig Storytellers’ visual artist in residence Ray Fox has an art installation on display at Ojibwe Cultural Foundation in M’Chigeeng First Nation, a show that the artist considers very sentimental.
“This is really special to me because I grew up in M’Chigeeng and this is my first time having an exhibition there. I left the Island for school and travelled around for a bit, so this is kind of my homecoming exhibition,” said Mr. Fox.
The installation is called ‘Enje’baa’yaang Do’makwendaan,’ or ‘Collection of memories: Where I am from.’ It features a selection of drawings, paintings and a lithograph that have been produced within the past three years.
‘Enje’baa’yaang Do’makwendaan’ is a look through Mr. Fox’s earlier life and his quests to figure out who he was, which involved leaving smaller communities behind in pursuit of the big city—a story well-known by Islanders.
“I went to OCAD University for drawing and painting but I didn’t finish. I found it hard to establish my aesthetics, how I wanted to portray myself as an artist. I was kind of struggling, I guess, with my identity, in terms of the art I was creating,” said Mr. Fox.
The cost of living in Toronto was another barrier, and Mr. Fox had to give up his art for a period of six years until he moved back north to Sault Ste. Marie five years ago.
“All of this style of artwork that I’ve started producing since then is very relevant to Northern Ontario, which is kind of interesting because I left Northern Ontario to find myself and it wasn’t until I came back that I was producing stuff that was meaningful to me,” he said.
The artwork incorporates Anishinaabe life, childhood memories, old family photos, creation stories with wildlife, and animals of the North and how both Northerners and Anishinabek relate to them. His main messaging behind this collection is to look at the smaller, sometimes mundane parts of life and find meaning there.
“There was one drawing I finished recently of the coffee can. I wanted to include it so I stayed up all night to finish it before the installation day,” said Mr. Fox.
He started going to ceremonies with his family as a boy and he and his father would often work as doormen outside of a lodge, ensuring that everyone who entered had smudged. When not serving as doormen they would tend the sacred fire.
“We were very serious about the jobs. Nobody got through that door unless they’d smudged and we would put all the medicines in this coffee can—we’d use whatever was at hand, often something recycled—that was fitted with a long wire handle,” he said. “It’s that childhood memory of cultural identity and spirituality, of purpose, and also being included within ceremonies and having family around at the same time.”
Although it has reached new heights of sentimentality, this is far from the first exhibition featuring Mr. Fox’s works. He has hosted nearly 25 since he was in high school back in 2002 and said they have all been unique in their own ways.
The day after the opening event, Mr. Fox hosted a life drawing workshop for more than a dozen people. This is the first time an opening event for his work has hosted such a workshop, though as the visual artist in residence at Debaj he is no stranger to hosting community arts-based workshops and presentations.
“I had made some charcoal using local materials for the workshop itself. I was telling people, it’s really something else in terms of storytelling and creating an image using local materials as your drawing utensil,” said Mr. Fox. He used grape vines, driftwood and willow wood to make the charcoal.
“I find it to be a very Anishinaabe process to use the land to tell your story, so we had a lot of fun with that,” he said.
The workshop was a positive addition for Mr. Fox, who said it created a better experience for the people within the art community that could create art alongside an artist working in a particular style.
‘Enje’baa’yaang Do’makwendaan’ is on display at Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, just south of the intersection of Highways 540 and 551 in M’Chigeeng First Nation, until April 6.