This post is part of our Public Art Network 2017 Year in Review blog salon.

For an artist, the initial concept for a public art project can be an exciting experience followed by anxious moments of uncertainty. Thinking of a concept that speaks to the public, while reflecting the values of your own artistic expression, is a challenging task. What is the artwork intended to do? Who is your audience? Most importantly, what is the genius loci of this place? These questions preoccupied me as I conceptualized and created Amiskwaciw Wâskâyhkan Ihtâwin, a three-dimensional gateway/mural located in downtown Edmonton, Alberta.

My awareness of Edmonton’s historic role as a gathering place for Indigenous peoples provided an essential clue to uncovering the essence of this special park.

Artists should never force a concept or an idea; to be aware of, and present to, what the environment is telling you is paramount. I drew my experience as a Métis artist, with access to, and understanding of, Elders’ traditional teachings into my creative approach and journey.

The decision to incorporate bird ecology within Amiskwaciw Wâskâyhkan Ihtâwin began one Sunday with a family road trip to Beaver Hills, 75 kilometers east of Edmonton.

I wanted to experience this rural landscape and find relationships that would resonate with the urban fabric where my site existed. While driving through cultivated fields, lined with Lodgepole Pines, I spied a flock of birds swooping above the sunroof.

There is no road access to Beaver Hills, so I decided to follow the birds that seemed to be our leaders and guides within this magical place. My unexpected cry of “Follow those birds!” left everyone laughing and grasping their seats as the car took a sharp left turn.

The flock led us into a wide opening of marshland; we witnessed the birds meeting up with their families and friends. It went from seeing a hundred birds, to witnessing thousands of birds swooping in a majestic choreography in the sky. Everyone got out of the car, and stood there in silence looking up and listening to all the wings come together.

This was a phenomenon. Something so simple as watching these birds fly in figure eights and not even bumping into each other was an extraordinary experience.

I thought, “This is what public art should be: a place where people can come together and say something important and meaningful about their experience whether in the past, in the moment, or looking ahead towards the future.”

Walking further along, I noticed a park with access. We walked along narrow wood catwalks and encountered signage indicating that this area is one of the largest bird migratory spots in the province. Each spring, birds flock to this one particular spot to gather and meet. Here was another clue that would guide me as I created the concept. 

One week went by, and nothing was sticking; piles of scrunched-up paper littered my apartment floor. Every concept lacked a deeper meaning or was too literal. Frustrated, I took a walk in the nearby river valley.

Lying on a picnic table in Mill Creek Ravine, eyes closed, face to the sky, I grappled with fear, not knowing how I was going to pull this off. Then, something unexpected happened. I opened my eyes to see a flock of birds swooping down close to me. I could hear the friction of each wing. “These are those birds that I saw on our trip!”

I jumped up and just watched as they soared and played games in the sky right above my head. After witnessing this beautiful dance, I quickly ran home to do some research on exactly what bird species was doing this: Bohemian Waxwings!

Every spring, these birds travel significant distances to feed on red berries, sometimes consuming double their weight during spring feeding. I asked, “How could I re-create the phenomenon that I experienced in the natural setting of Beaver Hills, within Beaver Hills House Park?” It became apparent that I had to create hundreds of birds to replicate the flight pattern I witnessed in the sky. From there, everything came together.

The process was extensive because, understanding that this Beaver Hills House Park project was not just about my perspective but rather that of the community, I decided to become a facilitator.

Meetings with Indigenous focus groups and Elders provided the basis for what I was about to create. I decided to organize three public art workshops, where I would ask the participants to tell me their story by drawing inside bird silhouettes given to them. I truly enjoyed this aspect of the project because I got the opportunity to engage with my community and share ownership of the art process with them.

Laying out the completed drawings, I noticed a colorful meaning in each bird that I picked up. Notions of optimism and gratitude filled in each line and I realized that most of my Indigenous participants were inner-city Indigenous youth vocalizing their stories visually. The 150 birds became the representation of each participant, having their voice heard. 

Edmonton Arts Council—Beaver Hills House Park (Shirley Tse, Girl Named Shirl Photography)

I thought, “This is what public art should be: a place where people can come together and say something important and meaningful about their experience whether in the past, in the moment, or looking ahead towards the future.”

Looking back, I am infinitely grateful that I incorporated my Elders’ traditional teachings within Amiskwaciw Wâskâyhkan Ihtâwin in a graceful and meaningful way. The guidance of Mother Earth led me to create a project that is deeply rooted in history, tradition, and meaning for all of Edmonton to enjoy. 

Edmonton Arts Council—Public Art Bus Tour & Community Celebration (Doyle C Marko, DCM Photography)