Conversation / Interview: Lauren Crazybull & Charlene Vickers
Here's the third 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 others in this series: with SCA MFA student Taryn Walker and SCA alumni Krystle Silverfox, which you can find HERE, and with SCA MFA student Cody Tolmie speaks with SCA alumni Michelle Sound, which you can find HERE. Also, don't miss our interview with SCA alumnus and Skoden Indigenous Film Festival co-founder and now co-instructor Carr Sappier, which you can find HERE.
Lauren Crazybull: My name is Lauren Crazybull. I'm a painter. I'm currently doing my MFA at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. I'm Blackfoot and Dené from Alberta. Kainai Nation and Fort McKay First Nation. I'm talking today with Charlene Vickers. It's such a pleasure to be able to talk to you, and I hope to learn a little bit more about you and your practice.
Charlene Vickers: Thanks for asking me to be part of this process. I'm Anishinaabe Ojibway from Kenora, Ontario, Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation, also called Rat Portage. I grew up outside of my community in Toronto with a non-Indigenous family, so that's something. I'm an artist and I work in lots of different mediums: I'm a painter and I do sculpture and performance, and I've started to go into music a little bit. I've been working at my practice, I would say, for a good 20 years.
LC: When I first moved to Vancouver almost two years ago, your opening at the Contemporary Art Gallery was the first opening I went to. Faye Heavyshield invited me. I was super drawn to – I think it's called Diviners Grasses – that series of drawings. I think it's really cool that you have such an interdisciplinary practice. Was there something you started out doing when you first started doing art?
CV: Well, as a young person, I drew a lot. I hid away in my bedroom, and I drew. That's how I started. And then I learned how to paint. I thought, “I'll go to art college,” and continued doing my art studies and painting there. So, that’s my first love: it’s painting.
LC: What was school like for you? You did your MFA at SFU. Did you do your undergrad at Emily Carr?
CV: Yeah, I did my undergrad at Emily Carr in 1990 to 94. I took painting there, but I was also really interested in art history. I was first introduced to contemporary Indigenous artists at that time through shows like INDIGENA and Land, Spirit, Power at The National Gallery. I thought that was really, really inspiring. That sort of pushed my focus in a lot of ways, and helped me move towards – I guess, laying the foundations, even – of exploring my identity as being First Nations. So, it's through art that I was able to ground and center myself in so many ways. It's part of my survival.
LC: I think we have a lot in common. I also grew up in a non-Indigenous family in Alberta. I also use my art to explore identity, and to see where I was from and who my family was, and stuff like that. So, it's really cool to hear your story, too. What are you doing right now in your work?
CV: Well, I just started to do some new mixed media work with some Budweiser beer cases. At SFU, I did a big sculpture for a little gallery space called The Cabinet. I made a bunch of mixed media weavings with the beer cases and felt. I sewed it and used embroidery buttons, but there's no beading in it. It's this long thing that looks like a lean-to, and I think it also looks like a gurney that's propped up against the little glass enclosure it’s in. It's called Medicine Weavings. So, that's something I've made recently. I'm sort of sitting in-between things, returning to old ideas. I did a number of drawings with felt markers that are similar to the Diviners drawings of the grasses. I did a whole new series of those to see how that would change, because that's a series from about twelve years ago. I returned to that and tried that out again. That was an interesting process: the colors are very different, and they're really super saturated, with more forms coming out – things like flowers and feathers. It's abstract, but there's a structure that's sort of coming out, bringing form, so that’s interesting.
LC: It's cool to hear about you returning to different things that you've tried before. I feel like there're impulses that – sometimes you don't really know, at the time, why you feel like doing something. But it's cool to revisit it. Sometimes it makes sense years later, I find.
CV: Yeah, for sure. It's like you're unlocking. I was talking about my dreams this morning with my mom, and we're talking about your subconscious. So, if you're unlocking some things in your subconscious, process really brings that out, as well. Thinking about different things as you're going along, especially with abstract mark making and gestures, and that kind of thing. It's like, you get to sit by yourself and think about things – about ideas, situations, and stuff.
LC: I also find, sometimes, it can feel, in the studio, when you're following those impulses, or they don't make sense at the time, maybe, but sometimes it feels like they're just sort of sitting around in the studio. For me, at least. I was talking to one of my studio mates yesterday, and even the days where you're not doing anything are useful, because that might lead you to a day where something really good happens. What’s a good studio day for you?
CV: Usually, it's when you're working, and everything's quiet, and you can get in your zone really fast. And you're working away, and the day kind of just flies by, and you're like, “well, I got something done.” [Laughter] That's all! That's all I need. It's that feeling like, “oh yeah, this feels good,” and you look at what you've done. Or you're thinking, “oh, that's a good idea,” or it brings you to another idea. Or it's like you're looking at what you’ve done, and you're like, “oh, that's where it's at.” That's really great, you know? And you like feel like, “oh, I'm complimenting myself.” [Laughter] Or you go in there, and you're continually – you're just negative, negative, negative. It's like, “I don't know what I'm doing,” right? Anyway.... It's always changing. Changing your thinking – that's a good day, too. When you find out, “oh, I changed my brain.” That feels great.
LC: What do you like to do in the studio? Do you have something you do each time, like put on music? Do your studio days look similar, or are they different?
CV: I think it depends on what I have to do, you know? If there's projects I have to do. I do a lot of sewing lately. I just go right into sewing and cutting my materials, or organizing my desk. Busy sort of activities. It's only if I've got a show coming up, or I've got specific things that I need to do, then I'll work on that. But for me, when I get there, I just want to work. I don't want to chit chat with anybody. [Laughter] Just work and feel like I've got something done.
LC: Going back to your installation at SFU in The Cabinet gallery, how did you choose your materials?
CV: I had an excessive amount of beer cases in my studio that I collected from my neighbor, who drinks a lot of Budweiser. Every time I go by the recycling bin, I see if there's any art materials in there. So I grab it, and I was like, “oh, all of these are red,” right? Then I started looking around for different red materials. I found some recycled shopping bags that were red, and then something else that was red, like a red belt. Just anything that would go with red. So, those were the materials I was going to use. And I was thinking about where my studio is, and making artwork, and taking in the really intense addiction that I see every day. It's not drinking: it's really harsh drug addiction and sickness everywhere I look. I was just thinking that I want to do work that's kind of to do with medicine, and maybe ideas of self-medicating. But I was also thinking about what can you do with something that is so prevalent, and then trying to create something that is making something good out of it, right? Maybe it's idealistic, but I felt like, to make this work, and to work this way, with weaving the beer cases together, I think it's something that is – it's really an ugly material. No matter what you do, the material is still ugly, right? And there's this history that goes along with alcoholism and colonialism and urban experience. So, it's really trying to find some moments of creation, or positivity, or medicine, or healing within that sort of action, and with the materials themselves. That's what I was trying to do with that project. I didn't know what would happen when it was in this window, and using those dimensions – it kind of looks like a painting, like there's a canvas in there, as well. So, there's a lot of dimensions it's taking in.
LC: In one of my classes, we were talking about freedom. We were reading Maggie Nelson's book On Freedom, and it had me thinking a lot about – like, we live in a capitalist world, and we face colonialism every day. As you were talking about with your most recent piece, you can see colonialism’s impact every single day. Near your studio and just walking around in Vancouver. I guess, for me, I feel like my practice is a way to try to exercise my own freedom. I was wondering what freedom in your practice looks like for you?
CV: Well, I think it's being able to do what you want to do. That's the most important thing with freedom. It’s like, maybe you're not locked in by thinking about, “oh, I have to sell this to somebody.” Or "oh, this might not look nice on someone’s wall.” I feel like I'm in a unique position of being able to really explore – it's all over the place. Sometimes it's very colorful and I'm doing a landscape, and sometimes it's working with, I guess, the beer cases. You can say it's garbage – working with garbage. I think freedom is being able to find a space and a place to express yourself, and the potential of being able to show it somewhere, where people will look at it. Well, I hope people will look at it. [Laughter] But then there's also freedom in not knowing if anyone's going to see it too, right? So many years ago, I made work and there wasn't any audience at all for what I did. You have to recognize, and feel, and define what freedom is to you, I think, as an individual.
LC: Thank you so much again.
CV: Nice talking to you.
Charlene Vickers is an Anishinaabe artist based in Vancouver. Vickers’ works lucidly manifest ancestral connections, cultural reclamations and her territorial presence as Anishinaabe Kwe while responding formally to the Coast Salish land she has resided upon for the past thirty years. Vickers is an interdisciplinary artist working in painting, drawing, sculpture, assemblage, and performance. In her paintings, Vickers infuses layers of vivid gestures and forms to illuminate life underneath shadows and textures, imagining emergent landscapes and birthing creatures amid mythic transformation.
Lauren Crazybull is a Niitsítapi, Dené painter living and working on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam people. In her work, Crazybull interrogates how Indigenous identities have been historically represented and understood through visual culture. Working primarily in portraiture, a long-standing genre that is often embedded with an imbalance of power between the artist/viewer and sitter, Crazybull seeks to examine the relationship between herself as an artist and the individuals she paints. Through this ongoing work, Lauren uses her work as a way to assert her own humanity, and advocate, in diverse and subtle ways, for the innate intellectual, spiritual, creative and political fortitude of Indigenous peoples.