What paintings by residential school survivors can teach us about trauma, resilience and the power of art

Artist and residential school survivor Gina Laing opens up about how painting gave her a voice and a way of expressing herself amid the trauma and abuse that she endured as a child.
Gina Laing painted 'The Beach' when she was 11 years old as a reminder of happier moments of childhood. (Gina Laing)

Gina Laing is an artist, member of the Uchucklesaht First Nation and a residential school survivor.

From the ages of seven to 16, she was a student at the Alberni Indian Residential School in Port Alberni, B.C., where conditions were terrible, including reports of assault and malnourishment. Laing's only avenue to express herself amid the trauma and abuse that she endured was an extracurricular art class taught by a volunteer, Canadian artist Robert Aller.

"I started painting and I realised that I could paint anything I wanted to," Laing told q's Tom Power from a studio in Port Alberni. "There were no repercussions for that, [but] when we were in classrooms, we had to follow orders and if we didn't, we were punished severely."

Gina Laing with her painting 'The Beach.' (April Thompson)

Six decades later, Laing's art is helping us learn more about the trauma of Canada's residential schools.

Her paintings are now a part of a new exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver that aims to bring together student artwork from four residential and day schools in Canada: the Inkameep Day School near Oliver, B.C., the St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C., the Alberni Indian Residential School in Port Alberni, B.C. and the MacKay Residential School in Dauphin, Man.

Andrea Walsh is the curator of the exhibition, which is called There is Truth Here: Creativity and Resilience in Children's Art from Indian Residential and Day Schools.

She spoke to us about collecting and repatriating these pieces, and what art can tell us about the experiences of children who attended residential schools.

Andrea Walsh is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and the curator of the exhibit, There is Truth Here, at the Museum of Vancouver. 5:32

"What the art does in this exhibition, is it allows us to witness the individual lives of a child," said Walsh. "That's the power of art, that we can dwell on that moment in a child's life where they were creative and they had that freedom to produce something that was in their mind and in their heart."

In this painting, Gina Laing depicts herself as a young girl being force fed unfamiliar food – spaghetti. (Gina Laing)

For Laing, painting has given her a voice and a way of sharing her experiences.

"I think I remove the emotion from inside of me and put it on paper," said Laing. "I'm more able to speak about it openly and without any crying. When I first started talking about it, I couldn't even begin to talk — all I could do was cry — and I learned that painting was my way of being able to talk."

There is Truth Here: Creativity and Resilience in Children's Art from Indian Residential and Day Schools is on now at the Museum of Vancouver until January 2020.

Click 'Listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation with Gina Laing, her daughter April Martin, and curator Andrea Walsh.

— Produced by ​Cora Nijhawan

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