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Meet the Ottawa artist whose neon Cree signs are getting glowing reviews

Joi T. Arcand's installations have literally been lighting up the art world. Now she's one of five Canadian artists nominated for the prestigious Sobey Art Award.

Joi T. Arcand has been shortlisted for the prestigious Sobey Art Award

Joi T. Arcand, an Ottawa-based artist originally from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, has been shortlisted for the 2018 Sobey Art Award. (Nadya Kwandibens/National Gallery of Canada)

In more ways than one, Joi T. Arcand's installations are lighting up the art world.

Originally from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, the Ottawa-based artist has been crafting eye-catching neon signs that spell out phrases in Cree syllabics and installing them in Canadian galleries.

For those efforts, she's been shortlisted for the 2018 Sobey Art Award: a prestigious $100,000 prize that recognizes a working Canadian visual artist under the age of 40. 

"I found out probably a couple of weeks ago and I had to keep it a secret ... that was pretty tough!" Arcand told CBC Radio's All in a Day Tuesday afternoon, following the unveiling of the short list.

"It's surreal, still very fresh. [I'm] still processing."

One of Joi T. Arcand's neon Cree language installations. (CBC Arts)

A 'radical way' to counter colonization

Arcand had been spending the winter in Saskatoon for a three-month arts residency when a fellow artist put her name forward for the prize.

"I didn't think much of it because I didn't want to prop myself up for disappointment," she told All in a Day. "So everything since then has just been so exciting, because I kept my expectations low."

According to the Sobey Art Award juror's statement, Arcand's artwork serves as "a powerful and radical way to counter the systemic effects of colonization.

Neon is very powerful ...  it commands presence and space.- Joi T. Arcand

It creates "spaces that reflect the language, culture and values of Indigenous peoples expressed in our natural and built environments."

That sentiment, Arcand said, reflects what she's trying to do with her neon creations: make the Indigenous experience hard to ignore.

"Neon is very powerful. It takes up a lot of space with the light that it emits. Usually you're not that close to neon [but] when you're face to face with it in a gallery, it really overpowers the room," Arcand said.

"It really has a presence, and it commands presence and space."

Joi T. Arcand tells us about being nominated for the 100-thousand dollar prize. 6:41

3 Indigenous artists up for prize

Three of the five artists who made the short list are Indigenous: Arcand, west coast/Yukon finalist Jeneen Frei Njootli and Atlantic region finalist Jordan Bennett.

One of a series of billboards that Joi T. Arcand installed on Bank Street in Ottawa earlier this decade. The Ottawa-based artist is up for the 2018 Sobey Art Award. (joitarcand.com)

"It's so significant. I think that Indigenous artists are making such incredibly thought-provoking work right now," Arcand said.

"It's so exciting to be part of that community as well."

While Arcand is now living in Ottawa — she had an exhibition at City Hall last year, and some people may remember a series of billboards she installed along Bank Street a few years ago — she's actually the Sobey nominee for the Prairies and the North.

Her work will now be heading to the National Gallery of Canada, as all five artists on the short list will be showcased in a group exhibition that launches Oct. 3.

The winner will be announced in November.