Northern artists' masks selected to be part of national exhibit

Forty-five masks, incorporating everything from tufted caribou hair to walrus tusks, will be exhibited as artwork at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff this October.

Masks tell stories about northern history, impacts of the pandemic

Eliza Firth’s 'Delta Rose' mask will be on display as part of the Breathe. Collection in Banff, starting in October. (Tony Devlin/Black Fly Studios)

Most people these days wear masks as protection from COVID-19, but 45 masks will soon be exhibited as artwork and part of the "Breathe. Collection" at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff this October.

Inuvik, N.W.T., resident Eliza Firth's "Delta Rose" mask is among the artwork selected out of hundreds of applicants.

"I was in awe because it went across Canada, and the artists that came forth were beautiful," said Firth. "To be in that category with them, it felt awesome."

The Breathe. Project started as a Facebook group by two Métis women, Lisa Shepherd and Nathalie Bertin, in Ontario and British Columbia at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group called on Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to use their bead work and crafting skills to create a face mask that's not necessarily intended to be wearable.

The group ended up getting submissions from all over the world with thousands of masks posted on the page.

Inuvialuit artist Christina King produced these masks, titled 'Inuvialuit Fortitude' for the collection. The design incorporates sealskin and walrus tusk. (Submitted by Christina King)

After organizers were inundated with calls from galleries and potential buyers from North America, they put out an artist submission deadline for the end of June. 

The 45 masks were then selected by a jury of qualified individuals that didn't include the organizers of the group.

Bertin said she has started to receive the masks from all over Canada, before sending them to the exhibit in Banff where they will be displayed until February.

"We've had great participation from across the country and it's just been amazing — but I was really, really thrilled when the masks came in from the North," she said.

Inuvialuit artist uses seal skin, walrus tusks

Christina King, originally from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., also had two of her masks chosen for the exhibition.

The Prince George, B.C., resident used seal skin, walrus tusks and other Inuvialuit design element like red, white and geometric designs.

King, who is Inuvilauit, wrote that the masks are entitled "Inuvialuit Fortitude." The design represents the "strength and resilience of Inuvialuit" since half of the Inuvialuit population was decimated due to the Spanish flu over 100 years ago. Inuvialuit today are born from their ancestors who survived.

King's daughter, Isabella, wears her art mask. 45 masks will be displayed as part of the collection. (Submitted by Christina King)

Bertin said several museums and galleries are interested in the collection and it looks like it will run for about three years.

"The masks themselves … are true artifacts that are depicting a certain point in time in human history, and this isn't just us. It's global," she said.

'Making beauty' in a pandemic

Although Firth had submitted her mask to the group, she needed a little push to apply for the exhibit.

She said her friend Tony Devlin of Black Fly Studios took the professional photos of her mask to post to the group and helped her with the application process.

Firth says the exhibit at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies showcases artists' ability to 'make beauty' in a pandemic. (Tony Devlin/Black Fly Studios)

Firth said her "Delta Rose"  mask was inspired by all of the people in the past who were isolated and in hospitals, and her love of Delta roses.

The roses and stems are embroidered and caribou tufting is in the centre of her roses.

She added red, yellow and black beads mixed together with porcupine quills to represent people from all over the world "since this pandemic hit everybody. Not just one culture."

"I am a Métis person, so I used my infinity symbol on the mask to represent me. And that's how the mask came to be," said Firth.

"I just like to continue and show people what artists do, their capability of … making beauty when we have a huge pandemic."

Firth said she hopes to meet the other women whose masks got selected one day, and possibly visit the exhibit when the pandemic has ended.

"For this mask to be selected, it was nice. It was a really good feeling where you are making people aware of sickness, and how you come out of sickness and … make people feel good by your art."