Exhibit Report for Creativity and Resilience in Children’s Art from Indian Residential and Day Schools
Curated by Andrea N. Walsh, September 23, 2017 – January 6, 2018
Written by Lorilee Wastasecoot
Objective: The purpose of this exhibition summary report on There Is Truth Here is to determine how the exhibit has been received by the community of viewers who came into the Legacy Art Gallery from September 23, 2017 to January 6, 2018. This summary report was compiled using the visitor comment book and feedback given to the staff that recorded attendance and engaged with visitors over the course of the exhibit.
Findings: The comments gathered from this exhibit were informative in understanding how the audience received the show. Many of the comments made were very poignant, that revealed the emotional experience visitors had as they took in the exhibit. They either stopped to talk with gallery front desk staff and/or made comments in the visitor book as they left the gallery. Visitors left with various feelings. Some left feeling happy to see some positivity come from the work of the children, teachers Robert Aller and Anthony Walsh and the survival of the children’s art from the residential school era. While other’s felt triggered and left feeling angry, upset and emotional.
These emotional responses demonstrate that the gallery needs to be aware of the exhibit’s triggering content and how it affected viewers. Gallery staff should be prepared to engage in difficult or uncomfortable conversations with viewers about the subject matter and to be able to offer other resources for cultural and/or emotional support systems outside of the gallery as situations arise.
Another important event that took place before the exhibit was open to the public is to note that before the children’s artwork was hung on the walls for this exhibit Andrea Walsh asked May and Skip Sam, who are Coast Salish elders from the Tsartlip First Nation, to come to the gallery to do a cedar brushing of the space and of Legacy staff to prepare for the emotional work that was going to be done during this exhibit. This was an important step in establishing appropriate Coast Salish protocols and curatorial practices for exhibits of this type at the Legacy Art Gallery which is situated on the traditional territories of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations of the Lekwungen people.
9/23 – Visitor underwhelmed with the show and hoped for more paintings and diverse “regional work” from Manitoba.
9/24 – Emergency Smudge Kit needed and counselling services for those affected by the show.
10/5 – Water was very helpful for John, who was an Indigenous man, who cried.
10/5 – Moved visitor cried and gave Lorilee a hug.
10/6 – Visitors from Portage La Prairie. She was Metis and stumbled upon Legacy. Very happy she came in, needed Kleenex.
10/14 – A man suggested that there is too much politics these days, particularly concerning residential schools. Suggests less politics focus on art. Do a “Disobedient Men” exhibit alongside “Disobedient Women” exhibit.
10/27 – “I always come to these exhibits more than once.” “This is a tear-jerker, I really appreciate what you are doing here.” “Very important information.”
11/2 – A woman came by and spent quite a bit of time engaging with the exhibit. She was visibly upset and flustered. She could not respond to Wyatt question on how she found the exhibit she just left. Wyatt observed that she seemed to have taken the exhibit hard. “Amazing!” “Gutsy teachers!” “I’ll remember those for sure (Gina Laing’s paintings).”
11/3 – “Very emotional. I can’t even go into the far room.” “I’m getting some history in me….” “I learned about this all in school, but when you are listening about someone’s actual experience it makes it very real. If you don’t learn from the past you’re bound to repeat it!”
As these comments indicate, having those immediate supports in place and on site like water and tissue for a show with this content needs to be made available.
There were visitors who stopped into the gallery that came from diverse backgrounds and areas from local to international communities. Some people knew about residential school Survivors and Canada’s residential school system and some did not. Those who did not took some time to ask our front desk staff what that meant.
9/24 – British visitors appreciated the show as it helped them understand the history of the children and their experiences in the school.
9/28 – Australian visitors to the exhibit did not know about Indian Residential Schools and the word “Survivors.”
10/4 – A Japanese woman was sad and the show reminded her of the Japanese Canadian Internment camps.
10/7 – Tourists chatted about art, the teachers, the church and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
11/22 – “Fantastic.” “Powerful. Really shows the strength.” Conversation with visitor who had never heard of day schools had lots of questions and appreciated the chance to talk.
11/24 – Australian couple heard about gallery and visited. They were very moved by the exhibit and found the difference between the Aller and Walsh collections fascinating.
12/2 – Woman from Missouri came by with some Canadian friends. Talked about the schools and not surprised of these school in Canada.
The There Is Truth Here exhibit brought in UVIC faculty from various departments, and other museum and gallery professionals from other institutions to the gallery for the show. For example, Tricia Marck, the Dean of HSRD at UVIC, shut her office down for the afternoon and brought her staff of seven for a guided tour of the exhibit with; curator Andrea Walsh, Jeffrey Cook who has artwork in the exhibit and is a Survivor of the Alberni Indian Residential School, and Lorilee Wastasecoot who is an intergenerational residential school Survivor and whose father has a painting in the exhibit from the MacKay Indian Residential School. Marck and her staff said, “This is what learning should look like.” This visit created further discussions about what reconciliation can look like within departments and faculties at UVIC.
10/5 – Art Gallery of Hamilton visited and was very moved and interested in Andrea Walsh’s work.
Curator Karen Duffek from the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia was very moved came by on her own to visit the exhibit again while attending the BCMA conference.
10/6 – Beth Boyce the Curator from Campbell River came in. She knows Andrea.
Chilliwack residents attending the BC Museums Association conference, stopped by to see show on way home, “very beautiful.”
10/12 – Educator from Kamloops came in and shared thoughts on importance of cultural education. Wanted to make sure Andrea saw this comment and connect with her. Gave her exhibition website. Visitor taught in Kamloops in the 60s.
10/20 – “I’m happy to have gone to the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM) before coming here because there I learned that 40% of children died in residential schools.” Fred Samuel (Wally Samuel Sr.’s older brother)
11/14 – Andrea gave tour to two TRC officials. One of them was Marie Wilson (Commissioner during Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission).
11/1 – “Very much enjoyed this exhibit.” Tricia Marck, Dean of Human and Social Development.
11/2 – UVIC Chancellor Shelagh Rogers came in to visit the exhibit and spoke with Legacy staff about the exhibit.
11/4 – UVIC VP of External Relations came for a visit.
11/23 – “Very depressing, but it is important knowledge.” “I wish I knew the age of the children.” Two students studying Political Science came it as it was recommended by their professor!
11/23 – International student group and Bridge Centre came in to do self-guided tour. Community Island Health – Bridge Centre was a part of their activity program and outing.
11/25 – Kathy Stubbington from Osoyoos Cultural Centre and an artist came by to see show.
11/25 – Teacher from Oak Bay GNS wants to book tour for the 14th
Many visitors noted that the Legacy Art Gallery was a place where they felt they were being educated and made aware of things they did not know before. The history of Canada and its treatment of Indigenous children through colonization and consequently residential schools is a history that has been hidden from many Canadians. These visitors found themselves learning more about how Indigenous children were treated during their time at the schools through this exhibit. Some of them were sad, ashamed, and shocked by the things they learned. While some visitors were happy to see some positive aspects of residential school through the creation of art that was generally not part of the curriculum for students.
10/11 – Atom Egoyan (film director) came in and he said, “This is a very important show.”
10/11 – One visitor said, “I had no idea this was part of Canadian history. I am dumbfounded.”
10/13 – Okanagan visitors thought it was nice to see a “positive spin” concerning residential schools.
“Very emotional; going to go visit Songhees Wellness Centre next.”
Visitor from Montreal, has film in Antimatter magazine also studying First Peoples, “That was wonderful, thank you.”
10/18 – “A different perspective of showing cultural genocide.”
“Very surprised to see this kind of artwork when they were having the culture taken out of them.”
“I feel ashamed of Canada.”
10/20 – “I’ll tell my friends to come to see the exhibit before Jan. 6.”
[Talking to child] “Do you see that M? This is art done by Native kids who went to White schools.”
“It is cool to see what the artists say about their art as adults.”
“Very sad how Christianity became so important.”
11/4 – “It always seems to be the best art comes from the worst school.”
“The day school art seems forced; many drawings have Christian values.”
“You can definitely feel what these kids were going through, through their artwork.”
11/16 –One visitor lived in Dauphin, MB, “Why don’t we know about this? It’s part of Canadian history, we should know about this!”
11/17 – Couple came in and said, “Wow, really amazing.”
11/25 – Elderly couple from Port Alberni were very moved and “us white people can be so cruel.” Talked about resistance and resurgence.
The Legacy Art Gallery created a space for dialogue to educate and inform people on issues such as residential schools, children’s creativity, resilience and strength through art which speaks to the importance of exhibits like There Is Truth Here. The comments also show that it took the visitors more than once to digest the exhibit.
10/21 – “Stellar!”
“Better than most galleries in town!”
“The best exhibit the Legacy has ever put on!”
“This exhibit needs multiple reviewing, it is hard to take it all in in one visit.”
10/25 – “Very striking show.”
“Saddest exhibition we’ve ever put on.”
“Very moving, thank you for allowing us to view this.”
10/26 – “Nice to see a positive spin put on this whole thing.”
Two visitors came in and had a discussion with Wyatt (Legacy Staff) about the complexity of the exhibit. They liked it and thought it was “very necessary.”
10/28 – “Magnificent!”
“I didn’t have a lot of time, but just looking around for five minutes I learned so much more than I have in weeks. What you are displaying is fantastic and very important. Thank you for sharing this with the public.”
11/8 – Visitor spent quite some time but said she would have to come by two more times. Many visitors start in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Don’t go straight into intro panel. Many of the visitors spend much of the time reading the text. A visitor has a bookmark of one of the Inkameep pieces (in catalogue, not in show). “Powerful stuff.”
11/9 – “This is a really great place with some very important stuff.”
11/10 – “You know what we are going to do at school? We are going to draw some of this art.”
“Wish I had more time.”
Two home schooled boys came to the exhibit.
11/15 – Métis brother and sister came in to view exhibit from Manitoba. They stayed for a while but said they would come back when they were in a better head space to really grasp what the exhibit shows. “Very beautiful and touching and also very sad.”
11/18 – “Great exhibition.”
12/1 – Two artists came by to look at different galleries and really appreciated how our exhibits seeks to promote thought and reflection. Felt many of the other galleries are aimed for the tourist market.
12/2 – “This exhibit requires many days to view. It is very important.”
“Really great exhibit. Well, really terrible but really great.”
These comments demonstrate that viewers see the Legacy Art Gallery as a place that offers more than just art. It is a space that allows visitors to share how they feel about the issues surrounding the exhibit.
This exhibit strengthened and created connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on an individual and institutional level. The Legacy Art Gallery hosted two lunches with Survivors and their families. Survivors and their families had an opportunity to spend time in gallery together amongst the art to discuss the exhibit, the paintings and their experiences from residential school. The lunches were opened and closed using Coast Salish protocols with Elders, Deb and Ron George, and Elder Dr. Skip Dick welcomed visitors and guests to Lekwungen territory.
11/20 – Survivors gathering with Andrea Walsh and Legacy Staff.
12/12 – Cowichan Elders, survivors had lunch and curator tour with Andrea Walsh and Legacy staff.
The Legacy Art Gallery hosted a panel discussion, celebration and feast to open the There is Truth Here exhibit on September 30th on Orange Shirt Day to honour residential school survivors. The event was well attended with about 130 guests who came to the opening celebration. The local Indigenous women’s drum group, ANSWER performed dances and songs for guests.
9/29 – Visitor wanted to buy prints of some of the work.
“Will the teachers be here? (at the panel) – Thank goodness for them.”
9/30 – Panel day. 130 in attendance.
“This is such an important show. Everyone should see it,” said Atom Egoyan, film director. He came to the panel that day.
There have been questions expressing interesting in the show travelling to other communities. This interest expressed by visitors demonstrates the importance of continuing to share this exhibit with different audiences. This is a possibility that has been discussed between Andrea Walsh, Mary Jo Hughes and other museum and gallery professionals interested in seeing the exhibit travel to other institutions.
12/6 – Visitor suggests exhibit should travel!
1/3 – “Will this show travel?
1/4 – Martin Seeger came to see the show before it closed. He also asked if there was any interest in seeing this show travel.
Conclusion: In total there were 3532 visitors that have come to the Legacy Art Gallery to view the exhibition There Is Truth Here from September 23, 2017 to January 6, 2018. This exhibit brought many different groups of people together. There were students of different ages from elementary school to post-secondary institutions that participated in self-guided and guided educational tours. Included in that total were 959 students, educators, artists and professionals who came into the gallery for 45 tours. The Legacy Art Gallery was able to have Alberni Indian Residential School Survivors; Jeff Cook, Mark Atleo, Wally and Donna Samuel, Gina Laing, Donna and Jack Cook and James Wastasecoot from the MacKay Indian Residential School lead some tours during the course of the exhibit. This proved to be a powerful learning experience for the participants to understand that these children, who are now Survivors of the schools, are real people and the paintings are their truth from the time they spent in residential school. For the duration of the exhibit, the self-guided and guided tours were conducted by Legacy Staff; Gillian Booth, Lorilee Wastasecoot and curator Andrea N. Walsh.
One of the main perspectives considered throughout the tours was to ask participants: What does it mean to witness this artwork today and why does it matter? This answer evoked a different response for each participant but it was an important question facilitators wanted to ask before participants embarked on the tour of the exhibit.
The Legacy Art Gallery published an exhibit website designed by Jennifer Robinson, Research Associate with the Residential and Indian Day School Art Research Program (see: http://uvac.uvic.ca/gallery/truth/airs-repatriation/), a web resource that brought the experience of the exhibition online to visitors. The website provided readings and resource material intended for a high school to post-secondary academic level. It also featured personal conversations and accounts made by curators, artists, intergenerational residential school survivors and students on what it meant to witness the work of these children through the exhibit in the wake of Canada 150, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and their Calls to Action. “In this context, the act of witnessing helps to create a new record of residential school survival in Canada that is shared by Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,” (see online essay by Wastasecoot and Robinson, 2017: http://uvac.uvic.ca/gallery/truth/witnessing/lorilee-wastasecoot-and-jennifer-robinson/).
The comments compiled within this report suggest that the community has received this exhibit in a positive way that has allowed space for visitors to become inspired and reflect on the lives of the individual children through the art that they created in Canada’s residential school system. It shined a light on the teachers, Robert Aller and Anthony Walsh, that allowed the children to express their cultures, creativity and resilience through art and ensured its survival. On a broader level, this exhibit has educated its viewers on the policies of Canada and its treatment of Indigenous children through the schools. This exhibit has challenged the way in which Canadians see themselves within the history of Canada.
On Wednesday, January 10, 2018, May and Skip Sam came to the gallery at the request of the curator Andrea Walsh to close the exhibit in a good way using Coast Salish protocols with a cedar brushing to honour the work of the children, survivors, their families, the staff and space at Legacy Art Gallery for the There Is Truth Here exhibit.