The Legacy of Skywoman
The Art of Lee Claremont
When I was a little girl I lived in Stratford, Ontario, home to the Shakespearean festival. We lived in a neighbourhood with very small back yards and I remember vividly medieval costumes hanging on clotheslines throughout the neighbourhood. I can still see the rich elaborate designs and the beautiful colours. It was magical and almost supernatural to see those wonderful works of art gently moving in the soft breeze - as if the intricate and colourful pieces of clothing had their own personality and were visiting amongst themselves. That wonderful memory still overwhelms me with emotion and excitement!
Move forward several years and it is easy to see in my paintings the strong influences of that time in my life. When I reach the stage in my work when the intricate patterns and designs begin to appear, I reach another level of excitement. I never know what my painting will look like until I finish. I love that part; I love the mystery of a finished piece of work and wondering just how it got there. I love the process. I love it when someone looking at my painting finds all kinds of images or meanings in the work that I had no idea were there.
I am a "late bloomer" and didn't start my professional career in the arts until I graduated from UBC with my BFA in 1991. I found it difficult to be true to myself with my art-making while in university. I have kept a few pieces since that time and every once in a while I drag them out and have a little giggle. Although I did very well and graduated with honours, my critiques were somewhat painful. "Too decorative, too colourful, why would you use pink?!" I finally caught on and produced very dark, angst-ridden work, which seemed to me to perpetuate the dark side of humanity and I didn't want that.
The minute I graduated, I jumped into telling my stories with colour. My stories are not all happy. I have had many losses and tragedies in my life and for those really looking there is certain sadness behind the paint. But there is also humour and a celebration of life, of family, of the land, embracing spirituality and the great mystery beyond life. Colour and art do heal.
It was during my time at university that I began to embrace my roots as a Mohawk woman, something I knew very little about. This was not unusual for people of my age who are part of the "lost generation." My parents, as did their parents, in an effort to protect us thought it best to hide any part of where we came from. Residential schools, racism and marginalization of aboriginal people form an ugly part of Canada's history. Today I honour that part of me with my beliefs; how I live and through my artwork.
It is important for an artist to have his or her own distinctive "voice." Embracing my culture has given me my unique voice. I think of myself as a visual storyteller. The stories are told in paint, colour, patterns, metaphors, and symbolism. The Mohawks are a matrilineal society and in many of my paintings you will find references to Skywoman, our story of Creation. Skywoman takes us to a place of the feminine, the land, nature, spirituality, Mother Earth, and moral lessons of good and evil. I think these subjects are universal, no matter the colour of your skin or where you come from or what you believe in.
For the past several years, I have been fortunate enough to teach at the En'owkin Centre in Penticton, an international aboriginal college associated with the University of Victoria. This experience has given me the chance to stretch and explore my art-making with my students. I am surrounded by wonderful aboriginal art students from all over the world. I have always believed that you learn as much from your students as you hope you are teaching them. The students' passion is infectious and spills over to allow a learning environment filled with creativity.
This year I taught printmaking, focusing on woodblock and linocut prints; something I haven't done for years and now I am hooked. I enjoy the tactile feel of working with the wood and the lino and it reminds me of a fond memory. I used to carve on old pieces of barnwood as a child at my grandmother's feet, little knowing that I was actually making woodblocks that could have been used for printing. It is a whole different process than painting but still involves a sense of design and organization of imagery. I prefer the black and white or subtler images as opposed to colour, which is somewhat of a paradox!
I sometimes regret that I didn't get an earlier start to my art-making career, but then I think of all the experiences I have had in my life to draw from. My family has grown and blossomed into six grandchildren from three beautiful daughters and sons-in-law. I have a wonderful husband who is my best critic. He will not hesitate to tell me his opinion of my painting, whether good or bad! Good friends surround me and are always there to laugh or cry, and there are many in the community that have supported me from the very beginning of my career and I would like to thank them.
I am still learning and growing, I always keep challenging myself to keep my work fresh and take chances. I'm always looking towards the next painting. Always striving to share a sense of beauty, healing, and optimism within my art-making practices. I would like my art to leave a legacy of touching people's lives and leaving the world a better place. This is why I do what I do!
For more information about Lee Claremont and her work, visit her website: www.leeclaremont.ca