Jane Poitras: Media is the Message

By Lee Waters

Poitras mixes medias to connect with audiences
This year’s Aboriginal Achievement Awards arts winner, Jane Ash Poitras, is considered one of Canada’s finest artists, highly respected from New York to Nunavut. Her work, spanning more than two decades, has been a steady outlet of cultural and social commentary, focusing on her Aboriginal heritage seen through the eyes of a highly educated, worldly and ballsy woman.

Her paintings and mixed media collages explore such issues as the impacts of colonialism, the control over foreign dependencies; acculturation, the effects of contact within different cultures; and ethnobotany, the use of indigenous plants by certain cultures and regions for their healing properties.

In a recent interview Jane expressed the desire to ‘paint for herself’ again, “like back in University,” she said, with no pre-destined goals for the works. A self-purging catharsis, which can be achieved when one does not consider the audience or reactions of another while creating; a well-deserved break for a 20-year-long career of analysis and rebuttal. Her previous paintings do not fit this description of selflessness, one of her notably larger exhibits was titled ‘Who Discovered The America’s?’ a series of paintings and installations commemorating Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America from an Aboriginal perspective.

“I can’t always be with my bow and arrow!” Jane laughs, as she explains her present inclination to communicate more progressive and globally conscious ideas through her artworks, using the example of ethnobotany.

Jane’s works have been exhibited such as the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and the National Gallery of Canada. She has won many awards throughout her career. This year, at the Aboriginal Achievement Awards, she was the winner of the Arts and Culture category. “It was different than other awards I’ve won, I just felt so proud and appreciated. It felt good, in fact it felt the best.”

Born in Fort Chipewyan, and growing up near Edmonton, Jane originally studied microbiology, a seemingly false start for the later graduate of a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Alberta. With the support of her professors and faculty, Jane applied to, and was accepted as one of the few Canadians, to Columbia University in New York. While completing her Master’s degree of Fine Arts in Painting and Sculpting, her work was already being exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, and attracted the attention of Hannah Strong, wife of Maurice Strong Canadian and United Nations icon, who later purchased some of Jane’s work’s prior to her completion of school.

The popularity of her paintings was partially due to what Jane describes as a “universal appeal.” This can be attributed to her high level of technical training and education as well as her intuitive artistic visions. “I’ve always been in the mainstream, accepted by the mainstream,” she comments. When asked if she experienced difficulties regarding her artwork and her identity as a Native artist, she replies. “I’m colorblind and I guess the work was colorblind.”

The Aboriginal heritage, social and cultural themes of Jane’s works are combined with more visionary type imagery, derived from dreams, shamanic and spiritual themes. A sort of “Indian Expressionism” as Jane puts it. Together, her ideas are depicted in intricate collages using a variety of mixed medias including prints, old archival photography, paint, stenciled and handwritten text, newspaper clippings and many other materials. The artworks are potent with strong imagery and kinetic, vivid color.

Interactive collages
Her mixed media collages are meant to connect with the viewer on a variety of levels: the main theme, idea or message of the piece in its entirety, each broken down element of the collage (example: text, symbolism, painted depictions and their placement and overall relationship each other). The use of color and the emotions they evoke, and your own acquired spiritual interpretations. This makes for smart, layered and subjective puzzles, in which the viewer is an active participant.

Cultivating new brains, Jane now lectures at the University of Alberta, on contemporary Native Art and Shamanic Art. She’s also teaches ethnobotany, where her and her class maintain a garden, growing natural herbs and plants like sage and sweet grass. “Think about what the plant is saying to you…,” she instructs her class, referring to the age old analysis of the interactions between people and plants.

With plans in September to open a new collection at the Ceily Fine Arts gallery in Toronto, Poitras remains very inspired by the ideologies and imagery she derives from ethnobotany. Her most recent body of work titled ‘Consecrated Medicine,’ Jane describes as a “comparative celebration, new ideology and natural medicine combined.”

Whether Jane Ash Poitras is painting for herself, or embodying a renegade spokesperson for all of First Nations people, her work has a hard hitting and well defined edge, that retains her position alongside some of the most influential artists of North America.