By Clint Buehler
Daphne Odjig has been a pioneer for Aboriginal (and women) artists for more than 50 years, both with her own artistic creations, and with her determined efforts on behalf of other artists, and has received numerous awards for her achievements
Now she has received recognition from Canada Post with the release of three new stamps featuring her artwork: Spiritual Renewal (1984), Pow-wow Dancer (1978) and Pow-wow (1969). Special events to launch the stamps were held at the Hambleton Galleries in Kelowna, B.C. and Gallery Gevik in Toronto.
Calling the images on the stamps a representation of Odjig’s passion for the arts and love of her Native heritage, Jim Philips, Canada Post’s Director of Stamp Services said “Daphne Odjig’s colourful palette evokes strength and power. Canada Post is proud to add the work of this respected Canadian artist to our Art Canada series.”
Odjig, born in 1919, was raised on the Wikwemikon Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario by her father, Dominic Odjig, her grandfather, Chief Jonas Odjig, and her English war bride mother, Joyce Peachy. Her Native ancestors had originally moved to Wikwemikon after the War of 1812, where the reserve became shared with the Potawatomi (Keepers of the Fire), the Ojibway and the Odawa, forming the Three Fires Confederacy of the Great Lakes.
But her young life was to take tragic turns that could have ended the fulfillment of her potential before it even started. Athletic and musical as well as blessed with innate artistic talent, her aspirations were thwarted by a long bout of rheumatic fever that ended her formal education at Grade 7. Then she lost her mother and grandfather within weeks of each other and went to live with her grandmother in Perry Sound, ON where she had her first experience with racism. As a result, she and her siblings changed their last name to Fisher.
With the Second World War taking so many men overseas, women had new opportunities. Daphne found hers in Toronto, with the added bonus of discovering the visual art world there, and was inspired to teach herself to paint. At the end of the war she married a Mohawk/Metis veteran, Paul Sommerville, and they moved to Coquitlam, BC with his young son David where she later gave birth to their own son, Stanley.
Despite her motherly responsibilities, Daphne found time to continue her artistic pursuits, experimenting with oil on homemade stretcher and then canvas. She began with painting naturalistic landscapes but soon developed an interest in Cubism and Abstract Expressionism.
Widowed in 1960 and left with full responsibility for the strawberry farm she had owned with her husband, she farmed in summer and spent her winters learning and painting. Reconnected with women Elders at Wikwemikon, she learned about the traditional Nanabush tales and created a body of work, seen by then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, and ultimately purchased by the federal Department of Cultural Affairs.
As her artistic career grew she had more exhibitions and sales, and in 1968 accepted a commission to paint a series of erotic illustrations for the book Tales From the Smokehouse. As a result of her encounter at Brandon University her artistic vision shifted and as she learned collage techniques she began a series of mixed media collages that incorporated natural materials.
In 1973, Daphne joined with six other Aboriginal artists: Norval Morrisseau, Alex Janvier, Joseph Sanchez, Jackson Beardy, Eddie Cobiness and Carl Ray to create the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., which became known as the “Indian Group of Seven.” The group’s mission was to provide support for and encourage emerging Native artists by dedicating a portion of their earnings from art sales for that purpose. Their intent was undermined and finally eliminated, particularly because the artists’ dealers and other representatives objected.
Many more successful exhibitions followed, culminating in a solo show at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the first ever there for a female Aboriginal artist.
Daphne Odjig has been recognized for her artistic achievements with numerous awards, including seven honourary doctorates, the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Order of Canada, the Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts, and the Order of British Columbia.
Commenting on the new stamps series, Odjig says “I am pleased and honoured to once again have had my art selected for an issue of my country’s postage stamps. I am proud of my First Nations heritage and equally proud of being Canadian. It is my hope that these images of my paintings may help create a vision of the unique possibilities in Canada, for us and particularly for our youth.”