Artist Lita Fontaine still remembers the image clearly: her mother, bent over a colourful piece of cloth, carefully sewing, stitching and working the fabric into the shape of a dress.

"To me, the dresses were her way of showing beauty and pride for me and my sisters," Fontaine said.  “As a First Nations woman, it’s a sacred item.” 

Lita Fontaine Dress

Detail of one of the traditional dresses created by Fontaine. (Lita Fontaine)

From those first childhood memories of her mother hard at work, Fontaine has been captivated by the traditional cloth and hide garments of indigenous Plains women. Growing up in Winnipeg’s North End and attending powwows with her family, she dreamed of one day owning one of the carefully constructed outfits.

“The dress has just always been there, and has stayed with me,” Fontaine said. “It’s still there.”

Speaking to the celebrated local artist, it’s easy to see why she’s chosen to title her latest exhibition 'Saηksaηnića'- the Dakota word for dress. The exhibit, which honours the garment and its importance in Fontaine’s Dakota and Anishinaabe heritage, runs at the Urban Shaman Gallery until October 19th.

Lita Fontaine Shawl

Much of the work, like this shawl, evokes the prairie landscape and the traditional tipis of the Great Plains. (Lita Fontaine)

Featuring dresses the artist has sewn and manipulated through collage, mixed-media and photography techniques, the show explores the deep personal significance of these sacred cultural symbols. 

“I’m hoping that this exhibition will help people embrace the culture more than they do,” Fontaine said. “I know about the struggles and hardships we have as First Nations women - but I also see so much beauty.”

Celebrating art and beauty is a big part of Fontaine’s day-to-day life. For 13 years, she’s worked as the Artist in Residence for the Seven Oaks School Division - helping incorporate art experiences into the curriculum and the lives of students.

“I have the best job in the world,” Fontaine laughed.  “I get to do art and be with kids every day.”

Saηksaηnića runs at the Urban Shaman Gallery (290 McDermot Ave.) until October 19th