Conversation / Interview: Cody Tolmie & Michelle Sound
Here's the second in a series of three conversational interviews between Indigenous SCA MFA students and Indigenous SCA alumni, presented both to celebrate the well-earned achievements and insight of our alumni and the thoughtfulness of our students, but also in recognition of National Indigenous History Month.
Please also read our the first in this series, with SCA MFA student Taryn Walker and SCA alumni Krystle Silverfox, which you can find HERE, as well as our interview with SCA alumnus and Skoden Indigenous Film Festival co-founder and now co-instructor Carr Sappier, which you can find HERE.
Cody Tolmie: Éy swáyel Cody Tolmie tel skwíx. Te lítsel kw’e Sq’éwlets. In Upriver Halq'emeylem. My name is Cody Tolmie, I am from Sq’éwlets. I'm a current MFA student at the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, and I'm here with Michelle Sound.
Michelle Sound: Tansi! notisiyihkâtison Michelle Sound. My name is Michelle Sound. I'm a member of Swan River First Nation in northern Alberta, Treaty 8 territory, and I'm also Métis on my father’s side. I live in the territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam, and I'm currently on the territories of the Kwikwetlem First Nation. My grad show at SFU was 2003, but I think I finished in 2004.
CT: And you did your masters at Emily Carr?
MS: Yes, I finished my masters in 2011. I had my son in between.
CT: And that happens, right? It’s great! I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your time in your undergrad and how that helped develop your practice, and moving forward into the life transitions that you mentioned.
MS: I was a transfer student to SFU. I came in my third year. I had gone to Langara and Kwantlen before that. When I was at Langara, I thought I was going to go into art history, because being an artist didn't seem like a job. It still doesn't. [Laughter] It just seemed like something you could do. I decided that I did need to be in studio classes, which meant I was in school for what felt like 100 years, because you have to start studio at year one, and then I transferred over. SFU was the first place I had gone to where there was another Indigenous student in my class, which was crazy. We were both shocked to see each other there, you know? My whole time at the other schools, there were no Indigenous students and no Indigenous faculty, and there still wasn't at SFU at that time. Jin-me Yoon was there, which was really great. She was really important to me and my practice, and I still keep in touch with her, which is nice. It was a really great school because it was so small. I think our class had something like fifteen students in it. It kind of felt like a masters program. We took a seminar and a studio together – two classes with the same instructor. It was a great experience for me to have a cohort, and working so closely with the faculty. And being in that great space at Alexander Studios was so nice. I was kind of intimidated by Emily Carr – everyone kind of fighting for space, especially at the grad show. At SFU, we just had so much space to work with.
CT: Yeah, the studio space at 611 Alexander Studios is huge for the visual art undergrads and the MFA students. It's something that I also really appreciate. So, how did your practice develop in your undergrad?
MS: I think it was the first place where I was really starting to explore making art that had, you know, my Indigenous identity included. I wasn't doing that in first year. I started a little bit in second year, but I remember it being kind of hard. I remember doing one project that was about residential schools, and at that time – 2001 or 2000 – it was like nobody knew what I was talking about. Truth and Reconciliation hadn't happened, and nobody had any idea. I explained it to them, and they were kind of like, “Oh, so like a boarding school?” It was hard to not, you know, have that kind of knowledge. Even faculty didn't know what I was talking about. I guess at that time, why would they? But when I went to SFU I started to specifically explore my family identity. That was more comfortable to me. Jin-me was really supportive of me doing that, I think because she’s Korean. She was non-white faculty, the first one I'd worked with. She really encouraged me to explore that, and to find ways to write about it, because it was still really new for me. She was really great about introducing me to other Indigenous artists. She would bring in guest artists who would give talks, and then make sure I got a special little audience with them, as well, before they left – like, “Hey, this is Rebecca Belmore, this is Brian Jungen, and this is our Indigenous student. Come say hi!” It was really nice to have those opportunities that I hadn't had before.
CT: So that was like a big part of your journey: having faculty connect you to people that might inspire you or push your work further and forward?
MS: Absolutely. Even just introducing us to their work, because it wasn't something that was taught. Brian Jungen and Rebecca Belmore, at the time, were still relatively new. They weren’t something that we were learning about in our art history and contemporary arts classes. Brian hadn't won the Sobey yet, or anything. They'd been working for a while, but they weren't being taught in class. It was nice to be exposed to really contemporary artists that I wouldn't have known about. I remember Jin-me introduced me to the work of Lori Blondeau, as well, and she’s so important to my practice, I feel. It was nice to have someone see things in your work, and to think about who you could learn from, who you could be inspired by.
CT: I think it's really important to make those connections and to build those relationships within the art community and the Indigenous art community, and to find people that can help push and carry you. You started at the SCA, you studied at Emily Carr, you did your time out of school, and now you're free in the world as a working artist. You just finished up a residency – your most recent residency, not your only one – at UBC Okanagan. How did that develop?
MS: When I finished my undergrad, I was pretty burnt out. I'd been in school for six years, so I didn't want to do anything. I thought I was going to work in galleries. I had been on the board of an Artist Run Center, and I realized that I didn't want to work in galleries. I didn't want to have to write grants to keep my job, and stuff like that. So, I took a break. I had my son and I remember wondering if I was ever going to make art again. I hadn't really had a practice before I had my son, and then it seemed impossible to make art with a young baby. I decided to get my masters degree and went to Emily Carr. I went there specifically because, at the time, they had Indigenous faculty, which I had never had the experience of working with before. Unfortunately, right when I started, both of them left. They moved to New York. [Laughter] Of course! So, I did my degree, and I was a single mom at the time – it was like a lot of work. When I was done, I was still – it's still really hard to find time to make work when you're a single parent and working, and he was still a toddler. So, it took a few years for me to make a lot of work. I was making some work, but I was aware that it was not enough for a solo show, or anything like that. It was a couple of pieces a year, really small ones. It wasn't until probably 2018 – it was already seven years after my degree that I finished my masters – that I was able to start to make a full body of work again, which has been great. I've had lots of shows and have been invited to residencies since then. But having the opportunity to be part of the Indigenous Art Intensive at UBC Okanagan was so awesome for me. It was so nice to be recognized in that way by that organization. There’re so many great artists that they invite there. To be one of them was – it’s really nice to be recognized and included in that way with the Indigenous arts community. Especially with Tania Willard, because we’re the same age. I remember her from when I was doing my studies. We weren't in the same school, or anything, but I remember her being one of the few artists around my age that were working, you know? It was nice to get to spend some time with her.
CT: Yeah – to spend time with your contemporaries that you journeyed with.
MS: Yeah, exactly. There weren't that many of us in the early 2000s. There were so few of us. You'd see some artists who had careers – Sonny Assu was one, and Peter Morin. They seem so far ahead of me. I was struggling to just even get to make some work. It was really hard to do that. So, finally, I've had some shows now and have had the chance to do some residencies – it has been really great. It's interesting, too, because when I think about the School for the Contemporary Arts, and I started to do work that was about my family, but then when I did my masters degree, I was kind of encouraged not to do that. They were kind of like: Who is this art for? Who are you making this art for? was constantly a question. Are you making it for an Indigenous audience or a non-Indigenous audience? Who is this for? Are you making art that's only for two people? was something I was asked. Who's going to understand what you're talking about? So, I didn't do that for many years, actually. And then I started again. I was like: You know what? I want to make art about my family. This is what I want to do. I know it relates to a lot of other things because of things that happened to my family – or things that happened to most every Indigenous family, right? So, I was like, I'm going to focus on my kokum (grandmother) and my mom, and my chapans (great grandparents) I’m going to make art about that. I just feel that it’s really important to make the art I want to, and not to have to worry about who's going to get it in that way, or who relates to it, or who doesn’t see themselves reflected in my artwork. I was like, I don't care. I don't care if you see yourself in it or not. Maybe you'll learn something, but I don't think it has to be for you.
CT: Especially when an Indigenous experience can be so subjective, anyway. There’re so many different labels that we can be subjected to. Common ones are rural, urban, which nations and which families you come from within those nations. How do you navigate something that's so intimate, such as family, and, you know, make space for them and yourself, but still while holding that, you know?
MS: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there was this idea from other people that my work was about, “Oh, I'll make art about being an Indigenous person, and I speak for everyone,” you know? Like, every Indigenous person will look at this work and be like, “Oh, I see myself in there.” Or the idea that I was speaking to a non-Indigenous audience, and I was going to teach them. Like, my work was supposed to be super didactic in that way, and be like, “This is what our history is.” Or, you know, something that was really removed from the actual lived experience of knowing personally what your family members have gone through, right? I could make art about residential school, but I'm going to focus on my mosum (grandfather) and kokum who went there, and maybe not specifically tell what their story is. But… it's just for me the more personal response. And I think a lot of people have responded to it in that way, you know? Responding to a more personal story.
CT: And you're also able to kind of negotiate what is going to be viewed by the audience. You're not just showing the trauma and the pain, you're showing that warmth and the connections that you have to those people – which are more important, right? And which ultimately kind of drive your work further in some ways.
MS: Yeah, I absolutely think that I'm not interested in being constantly: this is the trauma. I totally am recognizing that there is trauma there, and I'm not at all trying to dismiss it, either. It's there. But we also have to live with it, right? In our day-to-day lives. And so that means – it's sitting around with your aunties at the kitchen table, and having a good laugh with them. There's so much of our communities and our family that's positive, and we never get to see that. I just wanted to make work that was about kind of bringing those together, right? Like, yeah, we live with trauma, but we're funny, and we're fine.
CT: Like true resilience, right? Like real world resilience. I wonder about finding ways to speak about those things, but not having them really be consumable, you know? Like, who is this work for, and how do we navigate that conversation overall?
MS: Yeah, it's definitely hard. I just got so tired of that expectation, that I was supposed to be teaching someone something. It's not my job to be the history teacher, you know? Canadians should know their own Canadian history. For a lot of Canadians, they think Indigenous history is this separate thing, right? It doesn't involve them, or they don't have to know about it. But it was all done for their benefit, right? We didn't put ourselves through residential schools and make ourselves do that. [Laughter] It was the Canadian government and policy. So many people think it doesn't involve them, but it obviously does. I mean, if you think about it, for sure it does. I just think that – I shouldn't have to be teaching people that, you know? I shouldn't have to have work that is explaining what the history is. You should already know. Or, if you're looking at these works, maybe you're thinking something like, “Yeah, why don't I know that? I should go look that up.” I'm not going to give it to you, you have to do some of the work, as well, as the viewer. You know, “Google's free and I'm going to look up what this is.”
CT: Yeah, it's not. And the work doesn't imply that you're open to being someone's educational kiosk, or something like that, right? [Laughter] It's not what it's for. And I wonder about the positionality that Indigenous students, artists, faculty are sometimes put in: to kind of carry that burden a bit further. Or, you know – it’s really just another shared Indigenous experience. Multi nation, intertribal. [Laughter] It's complicated, and it's still ongoing. So, I think that's why it's so important that artists like yourself, and new and emerging like myself, continue to make their work – whatever that work is. I think it's totally valid, as well, for artists to make work about their residential school experience, and whatever else. But that's separate from me articulating it, right?
MS: Absolutely. When I think back to when I was a student, like I said, there were no other Indigenous students until I got to SFU. It was just one other student – Heather. We were constantly having to explain something, you know what I mean? Like a weaving, or something. You were just constantly having to explain. Or people would look to you, you know? Like, “I'm not going to ask you, but we're all just going to stare at you now as the Indigenous kid in class to expand upon this.” Or even sometimes, you were doing work that wasn't, in your mind, about being Indigenous, and everyone read it that way. And you're like, “No, that's not what I was talking about.” But I’m Indigenous, so you're all going to read it as… I did piece about memory, and everyone responded to it in the crits about it being about Indigenous experience, and I was like, “That was not at all what was happening there.” That was always really frustrating in crits. Crits are a whole other kind of nightmare for Indigenous students, right? You have to decide how much you're giving, right? How much information you're giving. It's usually the weird thing of people asking you so many questions that maybe aren't even related – they ask you all these things. Or there's total silence, right? Nobody wants to say anything. Nobody knows how to respond. Yeah – that’s usually how it goes, from my undergrad and my masters degree. It was so frustrating, because, you know, you've made this work, it's on the wall, and there's dead silence. Especially in my masters degree. I don't know how it is in your program, but our crits were an hour long for each person, and they were painful for me, because it was like pulling teeth to get anybody to talk.
CT: Yeah, there's a certain fear about engaging with it – and then being put in that position to be an educator. Crits… [Laughter]
MS: Yeah, it’s frustrating that it still happens. And I know it still happens: I worked at Emily Carr for many years, and at the end of every semester, Indigenous students were coming in and complaining about their classes. That really has to be led by faculty. I would appreciate it, even, if faculty would’ve just talked about aesthetics, because so many of them don't know how to lead the conversation, and they just let these awkward silences fill up the crit. [Laughter] And I'm like – talk about something! Encourage some type of question! It was so weird how it was just for Indigenous students. Suddenly, they didn't know how to prompt the class, you know? Like, yeah – start with “What are we looking at? What are the materials?” Start somewhere! [Laughter]
CT: Yeah! “What are the trends in themes we've seen in Michele's work previously?”
MS: Yes! [Laughter] It's just, dead silence. It’s just so painful. And it really did only happen with Indigenous students, you know? Everyone was able to talk about anything else with anyone, and it was just like… Please say something. [Laughter]
CT: Yeah, yeah… I know now it's pretty commonplace for universities to have Indigenous access programs, and things in place to kind of generate admissions for Indigenous peoples. At that time, I don't think there would have been any programs like that, hey?
MS: No, not at all. I do not remember those happening. I do remember those happening when I worked at Emily Carr, but that was probably ten years later. But definitely: there was not Indigenous recruitment. There was usually not even Indigenous content in any of the classes. Like, you know – we had to take all those SCA contemporary art history classes, and stuff. And there was there was very, very little Indigenous content in those classes, which is still a problem. There were definitely not pathways into university. I feel like it was really hard for students to get the support they needed. There weren't even AGP spaces – I think you might call them Indigenous student centers at SFU. Those didn't exist at all. The one at Emily Carr opened the last year of my masters, and it was a big deal, because that was the first time I got to meet other Indigenous students, and to have a place to hang out, have some events, and get to feel like part of a community there, which had completely not existed before for me. Especially, being in the masters, which, again, was this really small cohort, and I was the only Indigenous student.
CT: On that note of resiliency and the challenges of education, what kind of helped you get through your undergrad and your graduate studies? What helped you, you know, persevere?
MS: Yeah, it was rough. [Laughter] Well, I think for me the big thing was family. I live with my mom, I helped take care of my mom, and I had my family support. But there definitely wasn't any support in the school. There was a little bit: people could help you maybe fill out some forms. When I was at Langara, there was Dave Pearson, and he was really great. He helped me get my status, actually, so that I could get funding, which I didn’t know anything about, and I wasn't a band member at the time. So, he was the one who helped get me funding for school, which was really huge. But, you know, it was just his office. You had to go there, have your little appointment, and then leave. I didn't know anyone else. For me, the big thing was connecting with family, for sure. It’s helpful to me in my current job as the Indigenous Advisor at Douglas College, in that I'm fully aware of what Indigenous students are going through. It's really sad that, you know, 25 or 20 years later, it's still the same in a lot of ways. But I can support our students here. I always try to be the support that I didn't have when I was a student, right? I also did recruitment, and so I was really aware of traveling around BC, of different communities that students were coming from, which is not something I think a lot of admin or faculty are thinking about: that a lot of Indigenous students are coming from really small, isolated communities. I would go to some communities, and the graduating class would be two students, or they were flying in only, had limited Internet, and all that kind of stuff. And then you come to a school, and they're (the school admin) like, “Our school is such a small campus.” And I'm like, “It's way bigger than their entire town.” Never mind adjusting to living in the city, you know, and not knowing what transit is, and all this kind of stuff. It’s really kind of like a gap that needs to be filled in post-secondary, as well, so I try to help out with that where I can.
CT: Yeah, it's an ongoing challenge. Well, thank you so much for your time, Michelle. I just want to mention your two shows that are up right now: LIVE THROUGH THIS, which is on until Sunday, July 8, 2023, at the Seymour Art Gallery (4360 Gallant Ave., North Vancouver), and The Aunties That Do at the Alternator Gallery in Kelowna (Unit 103 – 421 Cawston Ave.), which runs until Saturday, July 1, 2023. Is there anything you'd like to say before we close?
MS: No! [Laughter] Thank you so much, Cody.
CT: Thank you so much, Michelle.
Michelle Sound’s work explores personal and familial narratives with a consideration of Indigenous artistic processes. Her works explore cultural identities and histories by engaging materials and concepts within a contemporary context. Through utilizing such practices as drum making, caribou hair tufting, beadwork, painting and photography, her work highlights that acts of care and joy are situated in family and community. She works with traditional and contemporary materials and techniques to explore maternal labour, identity,and cultural knowledges.
Cody Tolmie is an emerging interdisciplinary Stó:lō artist from their traditional territory of S’ólh téméxw. Cody’s current practice is primarily focused on photography, painting and digital media. Within these mediums he seeks to contextualize and challenge notions of history, tense and power dynamics within narrative and lens.