Jane Ash Poitras: Acclaimed Aboriginal Artist Receives Distinguished Artist Award

By Clint Buehler

An internationally renowned Aboriginal artist has been named recipient of this year’s Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award, along with an accomplished Alberta writer.

Jane Ash Poitras and Robert Kroetsch will be honoured at a gala ceremony at St. Albert’s new Enjoy Centre April 9, when they’ll each be presented with a hand-crafted medal, together with a certificate and a cheque for $30,000.

Jane Ash Poitras, RCA is an internationally acclaimed visual artist whose work has been showcased in dozens of solo and group exhibitions around the world, and can be found in many prestigious public, private and commercial collections. She is a longtime lecturer at the University of Alberta and a much-in-demand guest lecturer across North America and overseas. Respected for her generous support of Aboriginal and community causes, her numerous honours include her RCA designation from the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Alberta Centennial Medal, the 2006 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Arts and Culture, the University of Alberta Alumni Award of Excellence, and the City of Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame “Salute to Excellence.”

Jane, of Cree/Dene descent, was born in the northern community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta and grew up in Edmonton. She meets regularly with Elders from many Native communities to hear their stories and to learn from them. She travels often, allowing her to observe and partake in the rituals of various Native cultures. By doing so, she brings a very humanist approach to her work. She isn’t just trying to give information – rather her work is about sharing knowledge. Her visual presentation of First Nations has had a tremendous impact on Canadian art.

Famous for creating mixed-media collages laden with social and political messaging, she often weaves in elements of shamanism as well as humour and joy.

In 2009, Jane travelled to Japan with her son, Eli, a student in Japanese language and culture. That tour consisted primarily of visits to Buddhist monasteries. The experience left a lasting impression on both of them.

When she returned, while she continued the focus on Aboriginal history, culture and spirituality that had informed and inspired her previous work, her new work subsequently began to incorporate Japanese elements, and their placement according to Japanese art customs.

Subsequent works trace the new artistic journey which she has traveled since, culminating in a concise—and dramatic—body of work.

Commenting on her work, Jane says “each blank canvas is an invitation to a journey of discovery. I may begin with an idea of what the final destination—the completed painting—may be, but I’m always open to the unexpected. As Carl Beam said, the art of placement is a spiritual act. Each step in the creative process may reveal unexpected choices that require decisions.

“The final decision for each piece is to know when it is resolved, when it is finished.”

Edmonton Journal visual arts critic Janice Ryan previewed one of Poitras’s more recent exhibitions, “Dream Blessings,” an ambitious collection of works layered with handwritten text, vintage photos, stamps and newspaper clippings placed over a background of thinned oil and acrylic paint. “The work is engaging for its beauty alone,” wrote Ryan, “but up close is where the cerebral journey begins, unravelling fragments of information, both subtle and in-your-face-pronouncements, to reveal the story this imaginative artist is telling.”

Poitras’s curriculum vitae is a curious one, Ryan says. In addition to a bachelor of fine arts in printmaking from the University of Alberta, and a master’s of fine arts in painting and sculpture from New York’s Columbia University, Poitras holds a degree in microbiology from the U of A. The latter was her first post-secondary venture after being convinced that she could not make art her career, despite artistic tendencies she had displayed since childhood.

Poitras said she was excited by news of the award, and humbled to be in the company of other recipients of the award “who are so accomplished.

“ I’ve travelled to the four corners of the planet,” she said, “but I’m always excited to come back to Alberta to my family, my people, and my dogs.”

Kroetsch echoed Poitras’s sentiments, saying he has always remained deeply rooted in Alberta, despite years spent travelling around the world.

“It has always been a country of my imagination,” says Krotesch, who now lives in Leduc, outside of Edmonton. “I love the stories, the landscape and the people.”

A native of Heisler, in central Alberta, Kroetsch is a novelist, poet, critic and creative non-fiction writer. In all, he has published 14 books of poetry, seven books of non-fiction and nine books of fiction. Of the latter, it was his third, The Studhorse Man, that won him the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1969. He was also appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2004.