Arts

These beaded masks are bringing together a whole new community to find healing

Lisa Shepherd and Nathalie Bertin — two Métis artists and friends who live on opposite sides of the country — have amassed over 1,500 group members so far.

The group put together by Lisa Shepherd and Nathalie Bertin has amassed over 1,500 members so far

Lisa Shepherd and Nathalie Bertin — two Métis artists and friends who live on opposite sides of the country — have amassed over 1,500 group members so far. 5:08

This April, Lisa Shepherd had already been thinking about beading a mask when her friend Nathalie Bertin posted on Facebook: "Where are the beaded masks? It would make such a great exhibition!"

Before long, the two Métis artists — friends who live on opposite sides of the country — started a group on Facebook called "Breathe." They designed the project to build community through masks. "It exploded," Bertin laughs, pleased that more than 1,200 people joined the group in less than two weeks.

Masks by Angela Swedberg, Marcy Friesen, and Cynthia Boehm. (Angela Swedberg, Marcy Friesen, Cynthia Boehm)

Pom poms, hide, woven cedar, embroidered textiles, copper and carved stone are just some of the materials used in the masks that populate the Facebook page. Many are beaded in the traditional Métis style, while others have been crafted using an array of historical and contemporary motifs and techniques.

The instructions are simple: create a mask and post a photo of it on the group's page. One important note: the masks are purely for artistic expression, not intended to be worn in public to protect anybody from the virus.

"The talent pool has just been incredible," remarks Shepherd, speaking to the vast scope and quality of submissions. She sees the project as part of a collective contribution to build morale in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. "We're definitely seeing the arts community pulling together and offering so much to everybody, and we're seeing that in the masks that are being created."

Beaded mask by Marlana Thompson Baker worn by her daughter Teionrasharens Cook Thompson. (Marlana Thompson Baker)

"The healing that this does is from the artistic point of view," she explains. "That's the purpose of these: to get a community of people together to discuss what their experience is going through a 21st-century pandemic."

With more than 1,500 group members at the time of publication, the group holds photos of creations from Australia, Europe and Mexico as well as Canada and the U.S. Shepherd says, "It was important to us that we made this really inclusive because this virus doesn't know borders, so it was really important that we had people participate from all over."

Bertin and Shepherd have been flooded with calls from galleries and potential buyers in North America. They've set an artist submission deadline of June 30, after which they'll be able to present the collection to Canadian and American galleries. An exhibition has already been set for April 2021 at the Kanata Centre at Martin Luther University College at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo; Bertin says it will "encompass community conversations and academic participation." The ultimate inquiry would come from the National Gallery of Canada. "Call us," Shepherd says with a smile, as she holds an imaginary phone to her ear.

Beaded mask by Lisa Shepherd. (Lisa Shepherd)

"I would personally love to see this project go into the school system, elementary and secondary school," says Bertin, "because I've seen how much healing can happen just in this group of artists. Imagine what would happen if we gave this project to someone who could develop a proper program around it, bring it to the students and have them produce masks and try to sort out their feelings around the pandemic and their fears and everything else."

The duo has developed a pilot program with Colinda Clyne, the lead on First Nation, Métis and Inuit Education at the Upper Grand District School Board, and it's already begun in a handful of classes. Bertin and Shepherd hope to introduce the program to other school boards across Ontario and beyond.

Find the "Breathe" Facebook group here and submit your own mask for consideration by June 30.

Nathalie Bertin making a beaded mask. (CBC Arts)

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Susannah Heath-Eves is a documentary filmmaker based in Ottawa, currently working on stories about healers and artists. She has worked as a reporter and current affairs associate producer for CTV and CBC Radio and Television. She has a Masters Degree in Broadcast Journalism and a BA in English Literature, both from Carleton University. You can find her sipping on mushroom coffee and trying her hand at growing vegetables.

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