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Indigenous art set to soar on Gordie Howe International Bridge project

Several enormous paintings created by three artists — Teresa Altiman and Daisy White of Walpole Island First Nation and Naomi Peters of Caldwell First Nation — will rise into the air up to 220 metres as the tower on this side of the border is constructed.

Artists contributed meaningful works, with a story behind each

Massive panels of artwork created by local Indigenous women are set to go up on the Canadian side of the Gordie Howe International Bridge project. These panels will rise along with the Canadian tower, up to 220 metres. (Darrin Di Carlo/CBC)

Indigenous artists and a project co-ordinator who created massive artworks set to adorn the Canadian-side tower of the Gordie Howe International Bridge say they hope their work represents more than just artistic beauty. 

Several enormous paintings created by three artists — Teresa Altiman and Daisy White of Walpole Island First Nation, and Naomi Peters of Caldwell First Nation — will rise into the air up to 220 metres as the tower on this side of the border is constructed. The bridge company approached Paul White of Walpole Island First Nation to coordinate the effort. 

White said his hope is that when people see these works, they'll ask themselves the tough questions that may lead to education and healing.

"And through those answers they gain an understanding of the artists as Native people, and Native people in general, and the messages Native people are trying to convey through their art," said White. 

"[It's] A way of really increasing the understanding between all the peoples of Canada and the United States too, and it's just there is no better way to display it or describe it."

Caldwell First Nation artist Naomi Peters works away on her piece for the Gordie Howe International Bridge project. (Submitted by Naomi Peters)

The artworks have now been installed, and the rise will be slow as construction on the tower begins. Once construction is over, the artworks will be repurposed in some way, say bridge company officials. 

For her part, Peters painted a picture of a hoop dancer that is five metres by seven metres.

"I dedicated over a week to it, and I was working day to night," she told CBC's Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre. 

"I've done a lot of larger canvas work. When I was young, my dad used to paint walls, and he taught me how to do it properly, so I had a little bit of a handle on it, but it really was a new experience, especially seeing those large panels. Holding them up, like you needed two people to even move them around." 

Peters said this is the largest artwork she's ever created before, and was overwhelmed at first. (Submitted by Naomi Peters)

As with each of the artworks and the intricate details they include, Peters' hoop dancer has great meaning behind it. 

"I knew I wanted to do something that represented a lot of different tribes ... Originally I was going to do something from my Pottawatomie heritage, like the grass dance or something, but I realized that would be a bit non-inclusive for other tribes," she said. 

"So the hoop dance is something that a lot of tribes can participate in and people who are even non-Indigenous are allowed to participate in without any kind of decorum ... I just wanted to show you something that everyone could enjoy."

LISTEN | Hear more from Peters about how she created her work and what it means to her:

A massive art project is set to be revealed as part of the Gordie Howe International Bridge project. Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre speaks with Caldwell First Nation artist Naomi Peters about the undertaking. 7:04

The painting process took place at an arena near Walpole Island First Nation, and White's construction team helped the three female artists with the big undertaking. 

Workers traced sketches as outlines and even helped with some of the painting, which Altiman, who is 72-years-old, said she greatly appreciated. 

Altiman's painting of a bear and three cubs  — white, red, black and yellow — are sacred colours to the Ojibway people, she said.

"For me, I was hoping that our art that we had on the bridge would be a teaching tool, that we are teaching people a little bit about who we are as a First Nation people, as Indigenous people," she said. 

"And so the four colours are telling you something. They're telling you that these are all the colours of the people of the world."

Walpole Island First Nation artist Teresa Altiman created the works of a bear and three cubs. Daisy White, 17, also of Walpole Island First Nation, created the centre artwork seen here. (Darrin Di Carlo/CBC)

Altiman also emphasizes how important it was that her fellow contributors are young women. 

"I think it is really phenomenal that this is happening for them as young artists, and certainly for myself as an older artist. I mean, I am honoured that this is happening and that my work is going to be shown in such a prominent location."

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