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Faye HeavyShield and Felicia Gay in Conversation: The Art of Faye HeavyShield 

As WAG-Qaumajuq prepared to welcome The Art of Faye HeavyShield to Winnipeg, we were able to sit down with artist Faye HeavyShield and curator Felicia Gay to talk about the unfolding conversation that led to the exhibition. Organized and circulated by the MacKenzie Art Gallery, The Art of Faye HeavyShield is open to the public April 29 – August 27, 2023.

WAG-Qaumajuq: Can we start with introductions? Your name, where you’re from, and how you know each other?  

Felicia Gay: My name is Felicia Gay. I’m originally from Cumberland House, Saskatchewan. My background and community is Swampy Cree from Treaty 5. Currently, I’m in Regina working as Curatorial Fellow at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. That is where the initial exhibition started. I was curating other shows prior, but I really wanted to explore Faye’s work.  

One of the things that was really important to me was that writing about Faye’s work for the upcoming publication was situated in what she wanted. As a student in art history looking up Faye’s work, there were so many different opinions and ideas about Faye’s work, but I wasn’t able to hear about the work from her until I happened to meet her. I was a young woman; she was installing an exhibition called Speak of Eddy in Saskatoon. And it’s funny, at the Mackenzie Art Gallery we initially had a river piece that’s included here called rock paper river. Faye showed me how to install it and left me to do it. I felt so like,”Wow, doing this all by myself.” 

Faye HeavyShield: Then I made you change it.  

Felicia: Then you made me change it! We ended up pulling rock paper river for the MacKenzie Art Gallery install. But we just got along really well during the Speak of Eddy exhibition installation. It was easy talking to her and having a conversation. I feel like she just got me, and I really liked her.  

Faye: My name is Faye HeavyShield, I’m a mother, a grandmother, an artist. I’m from the Kainai First Nation on the Blood reserve in Southern Alberta. I lived elsewhere for a few years, but that’s my home and that’s where I am now. I’ve never had a studio outside of my home, so it’s always been working within the home and always with my children, and later my grandchildren. They’ve continued to be a big part of my process. I usually rope them into helping me install.  

I speak Blackfoot; it’s my first language. I’ve been making art now since the early 1980s. I use a lot of images I take with my camera – I work with multiples quite a bit. The materials I use are quite ordinary, that’s one of my thoughts on artmaking. For me, art is everyday. Not in a negative connotation of ordinary, meaning boring, but ordinary meaning day-to-day. Art is always with you and can take place anywhere. 

WAG-Qaumajuq: Can you tell me a little bit about how the exhibition was put together?  

Faye: It was out of conversation; I didn’t really seek it out, but Felicia suggested it – it was a revisit of work I had made. It was really quite odd to see all these things in one place. While I was working on them, they occupied that certain time, certain place, and certain idea. They claimed their own space. It was strange for me to see all of them, all from different times, in the same place. For me that was the challenge, because a lot of times my work will be part of an installation around one concept. There will be maybe four, five works – there’s a video, there’s sculpture, there’s photography, but it’s all centred around one train of thought. This time, I remember making all these works and where I was at the time, what I was thinking. It’s like seeing people or seeing family you haven’t seen in a long time. Feels good.  

Felicia: I think the great part of it was this idea of conversation and process that no one ever gets to see. They’ll often see the final work, but just like stories, they’re abstracted and very layered in meaning and they’re thoughtful. It is like a visit, as Faye was talking about. People come to visit the works multiple times, because you’re building up a relationship with these works. At the MacKenzie, there are different works that people would gravitate towards, but almost ignore the rest. And I keep going back to that, how those objects are alive and maybe they’re calling you to come and visit with them. It’s a totally different way of understanding artwork that I find really valuable. We understand those concepts, especially since we’re language speakers, so it’s just a natural thinking.  

Faye: The fact that all these works are in one place, it really speaks to me. One of the things about having them all in one place – you have to think about the politics of that institution, you have to think about the physical space. That’s included in how people think about things. That’s why it’s really important to let this one piece breathe, always conscious of the body of the viewer, of that perspective. You’re making work that is supposed to be the only thing in that room, it wants you to spend time with it. I always have to think about periphery, and even beyond periphery, because you know when something is behind you. Even if you didn’t see it, you would still sense it. It is about senses. You have to really be prepared to negotiate when you’re installing.  

For me that’s another facet of artmaking. You started out with this idea, and okay well I’m gonna use images of the river, and this is what I’m going to do with it. But then it goes back into this place where it’s formal. Even though you’re taking this whole idea of how rivers move, how they flow, but then to show that to somebody, you’re challenging the viewer. You have to have enough reminders – this is about the river, this is about fragility of the rivers, or whatever you were thinking about when you were making it.  

When that’s transposed into this hard and fast place, I think a lot of times that’s why the work, for instance Body of Land, is still site-specific. Other places I’ve been, it’s been in u-shaped rooms or it’s been in an expanse, like a horizon line. That’s become part of the changes within a place. So sometimes we’ll say, site-specific: it’s specific to that one, but it’s not only that one site. It frees me up because I know maybe in the next gallery I won’t have that option, so I have to come up with another configuration. To me that’s really part of what keeps that work living. Body of Land, I consider it a living piece, because I’m always adding to it. It’s changing. It’s about skin and humans and land – all of those things are not framed.  

For me it’s the way it should be, for that piece not to be always in one configuration. Every time you go someplace, you’re challenged. You’re brought right back to that process of that initial artmaking. It’s exciting. It’s tiring, but exciting.  

WAG-Qaumajuq: What does it mean for these works to be here in Winnipeg?  

Felicia: We had conversations of course – being site-specific is just part of Faye’s work. We talked about Winnipeg being this water-based community, whereas in Regina it’s all plains. The water there has been manipulated – It’s not a natural entity of water, although it’s evolved into that. But those are definitely conversations we’ve had. I don’t think it’s formulized right now.  

Faye: It can’t be unless you’re right in the space. It’s going to be a home for that work for that amount of time. When we started talking about what works could be included, I didn’t want that many. I think we came up with the right amount, but even now there’s some that we’re leaving out. I wanted to have that option. I don’t like the idea of an art market scene, where it’s one work right after the other, because that really detracts from the original spirit of the work, which is that it’s you and the work. You get to spend time with it. Negotiating the space is a big part of it.  

Felicia: I was shocked at the extent of that negotiation. It was one of the most difficult installs because we had to be so mindful, even to the point of making sure shadows weren’t casting another dimension to something else. We want it at its most base entity. It was such a learning experience.  


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