Arts

She's Alberta's first artist in residence, so how will Lauren Crazybull spend her year?

The Blackfoot/Dene painter will explore the province, on a mission to make an Indigenous art map of Alberta.

The Blackfoot/Dene painter will explore the province, on a mission to make an Indigenous art map of Alberta

Edmonton painter Lauren Crazybull is Alberta's first artist in residence. (Photo: Conor McNally/Courtesy of the artist)

She's a 24-year-old painter who lives and works in Edmonton, and beyond the usual business of hustling to make ends meet, Lauren Crazybull has an exciting new item on her to-do list this week: make a plan for being Alberta's provincial artist in residence.

Crazybull was named to the position in January, beating roughly 100 other applicants, and the Blackfoot/Dene artist is the first person to ever hold the job. There's no other program like it Canada, actually, and it's a year-long role, one that comes with a few mandated responsibilities: she'll attend cultural events, for example, and serve as a bit of an advocate for local arts and artists. But her main objective, the project she pitched in her original application, will have her exploring the entire province. At each of her destinations, she'll meet with Indigenous artists and residents, and based on the stories she collects, Crazybull will create a work called "The Portrait of Alberta." 

I want to get a good idea of what this province looks like to other Indigenous people on this land.- Lauren Crazybull, Alberta's Artist in Residence

Says the artist: "It's going to be a large-scale map of Alberta marking significant historical places and looking at Alberta from 'our eyes,' and what that looks like to us as Indigenous people." So, an "Indigenous art map" — and it's a form that should be familiar to many people in the province already. (Last month, Alberta bought 1,600 copies of the Canadian Geographic Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada, enough for every junior high and high school in the province. The atlas, which reflects Indigenous place names and history, includes a gymnasium-sized map that's been touring schools around the country.) 

"There's still a rich history here," says Crazybull. "There's lots of stuff that happened before settlers came to Canada," and "The Portrait of Alberta" aims to share some of that knowledge, while also asking people to imagine the landscape without refineries, or "grasshopper" drilling rigs or even just suburban streets — so they can be be more mindful about where they stand. "We're in the midst of global warming, and being able to connect to the land the way Indigenous people do is really important," she says. "One of the things I talked about when I was presenting this idea was that we always think there's a huge difference between urban and rural, but we're still on the land, even when we're in the city."

Lauren Crazybull's mural for DC3 Gallery in Edmonton. (Courtesy of the artist)

Crazybull's work to date almost exclusively explores the idea of Indigenous representation, and she's a self-taught painter increasingly known for her vibrant portraits. Canadian Art commissioned her to paint a mural for Edmonton's DC3 Gallery last year, and at the moment, she's busy prepping a new solo exhibition that opens at another local venue, The Aviary, March 7. And a major theme in her work — reflecting the complexity of what it means to be Indigenous — is one of the challenges of this new project.

"There's so many different nations and people here," she says. "I want to get a good idea of what this province looks like to other Indigenous people on this land." And of course, she wants to see what it looks like through her own eyes, too. So while she's still deciding which community she'll hit first, Crazybull is already reflecting on the personal impact this project is going to have.

"I grew up in foster care my entire childhood, and that kind of kept me from my culture and my family," she says. In Canada, especially in the western provinces, her experience is shockingly common. More than half of foster kids under 14 are First Nations, Metis and Inuit, according to a 2016 Statistics Canada report. (That number went up four per cent since their last study in 2011.) And if we're just looking at Alberta, the 2016 stats say that Indigenous children accounted for 71 per cent of foster kids in the province. Former minister of Indigenous services, Jane Philpott, called it a "humanitarian crisis" in 2017.

Crazybull says she finds some significance in the fact this current project is a government gig. "It's like now I'm being given the resources to kind of reconnect in a way," she says. "That's really big for me."

"I'm going to be able to learn a lot of stuff that was kept from me when I was growing up. So yeah, it's going to be a very personal project."

As part of her research, she hopes to spend time in areas connected to her own family: Kainai Nation in southern Alberta and also communities around Fort Chipewyan. But she's also considering invitations from places all over the province. Beyond holding workshops wherever she arrives, Crazybull's number one plan is to speak with Indigenous artists. (Crazybull used to cover Indigenous issues for Lethbridge radio station CKXU, and as part of the project, she plans to produce an hour-long audio documentary to accompany the map.)

"I'm just going to try to connect with as many people as I can during this time," she says. "Part of this position is advocating for artists so I really want to hear as much as I can about other people's experiences."

You can follow her progress on Instagram at @ab_artistinresidence.

Check out these paintings by Lauren Crazybull.

Acrylic self-portrait by Lauren Crazybull. (Courtesy of the artist)
Portrait of throat singer Jenna Broomfield by Lauren Crazybull. (Courtesy of the artist)
Painting by Lauren Crazybull. (Courtesy of the artist)
Portrait of Billy Ray Belcourt by Lauren Crazybull. (Courtesy of the artist)

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.