By Jenn Watt
For the past 30 years artist Mary Anne Barkhouse has been examining issues crucial to our survival as a species – our stewardship of the land andwater the legacy of colonialism on the people and ways forward bybuilding bridges and starting important conversations.
Her workwhich includes depictions of the creatures familiar to most of us fromour natural environment has been exhibited across Canada and the United States inspiring viewers to look at our world from a new perspective.
To honour the impact of her work on June 25 the Ontario Arts Councilannounced that Barkhouse who lives and works in the Gelert area wouldbe named the 2020 recipient of the Indigenous Arts Award.
The awardincludes a $10000 prize certificate and Indigenous-designed blanket.The recipient also names an emerging artist to receive a $2500 prize.Barkhouse chose Kawartha-based visual artist Olivia Whetung.
Barkhouse said after months of self-isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic newsof the award reconnected her to her audience and provided the kind offeedback she’s been missing.
“It is of course a great honour and asurprise … especially given the circumstances we have right now withisolation it’s a really nice acknowledgement that the work that I’mdoing is being heard and is being understood at the different levelsthat I’m presenting at to a variety of audiences” she said in aninterview with the Minden Times .
Her work includes installations inboth outdoor and indoor spaces including the National Gallery ofCanada the Banff Centre for the Arts Canadian Museum of History andCarleton University among many others. She graduated from the OntarioCollege of Art and Design in 1991.
Family is at the root ofBarkhouse’s interest in ecological preservation. Her family on hermother’s side is from the Nimpkish band of the Kwakiutl First Nation inBritish Columbia and her father’s side is of German and British descent from Nova Scotia.
Her grandfather on her mother’s side was acommercial fisherman her paternal grandfather was a farmer. She saidthey both instilled in her the message: we look after the land and itlooks after us.
“It’s just something that was really ingrained in my upbringing … that is why that has arisen as a constant thread throughmy work” she said.
Barkhouse was living and working in Toronto when she came upon the Haliburton Highlands thanks to a connection withartist Lois Betteridge who taught at the Haliburton School of Art +Design. As a sculptor Barkhouse said she wanted to work withBetteridge renowned for her metalwork who only taught in Haliburton.
“Lois not only taught at the summer school but she also had a cabin up inthe Gooderham area” she said. “I started studying with her and became a friend and started hanging out at her cabin.”
That introduction led to Barkhouse electing to move to Minden Hills where she has lived formore than two decades. The decision influenced the direction of the work she would go on to create.
“I have always done [art] aboutlandscape about Indigenous values connected with all sorts of issuesof the land but then I moved into this area and became very wellacquainted with beavers – in a good way” she laughed. “I’ve had thesame challenges that a lot of people do with beaver activity but Ico-exist with them. The beavers are wonderful neighbours. It’s not justthat beavers feature in my artwork but as one of the keystone speciesthey feature because of the greater implications to do with ourrelationship with land. That’s why this area really did have a profoundeffect on the direction that my artwork took.”
The sculptor uses facets of animal behaviour to tell stories and to discuss contentious topics often with a playful tone.
Her series Early Morning Wolf Stretching Exercises which includedhand-drawn images of wolves doing the kind of stretches dog owners would recognize from their own pets at home was a way for Barkhouse todiscuss the commonalities between all of us.
She said the works weredone during a time when political debate was heated around land rightsin British Columbia in the late 1980s early 1990s as the public wasbecoming aware that parts of that province were not covered by treaty.The unease that accompanied what was new knowledge for many led toracism and backlash toward the Indigenous peoples of the area.
“Iwas thinking of going back to what is important for people and animalsand everything is having a stable home. And a stable ecosystem and …there’s a similarity that runs through all of us” she said.
One thing we certainly all have in common – humans and animals alike – is our love of a good stretch in the morning.
“What is it that we share in common that we can look at each other as peopleand say OK we need to have these discussions and figure it out without everything being black and white. That’s where wolf stretching came in. I thought if you look at things everyone needs to get up and stretchin the morning … there’s this commonality that we all have.”
Barkhouse said her work is an avenue for discussion and for building bridges between people.
“I see my role as being a storyteller and telling the story of my place in history from my place geographically and telling stories of my familyand my communities of which Haliburton is a big part” she said.
She hopes that her winning the Indigenous Arts Award raises the profile ofthe arts in the Highlands community which she notes includes that ofperformers writers and visual artists.
“It’s really wonderful and I’m just really happy to be part of this community.”
When galleries begin to reopen you can check out Barkhouse’s work at theNational Gallery of Canada at the Canadian Museum of History andCarleton University. She is also scheduled to exhibit her work at theAgnes Jamieson Gallery next year. In the meantime you can see hersculpture Gelert at the Haliburton Sculpture Forest; her work Esker in Peterborough; or check out her website https://maryannebarkhouse.ca .