Daphne was at the heart of a group of seven aboriginal artists who were drawn together at the gallery she opened on Donald Street in Winnipeg in 1971 called Odjig Prints of Canada. Here Daphne along with six male artists Jackson Beardy, Carl Ray, Eddy Cobiness, Norval Morrisseau and Alex Janvier met to discuss prejudices they faced as First Nations artists and to share and critique one another’s work.
Seeing these seven artists’ paintings displayed side by side at the WAG some thirty years later, is a visual feast that provides an opportunity to observe the many common threads in the work of the group. As I prepared for giving students tours of the exhibit I knew that I wanted them to not only enjoy the beauty of the paintings and engage with the stories they told, but to also have some sense that each of the seven contributing artists was a unique and interesting person and could be distinguished from the other six. How could I do that on a short tour? I decided to give each artist a nickname to help the children remember them. As I started doing research to figure out what those nicknames might be I discovered to my surprise that many of the seven artists already had nicknames. Daphne Odjig was dubbed Picasso’s Grandmother by fellow artist Norval Morrisseau. Daphne discovered the paintings of Picasso in the 1950’s and carefully studied and analyzed his work. The Spanish painter once referred to Daphne as ‘a remarkable artist’. Daphne was one of four international artists asked to paint a memorial to Picasso at the Picasso Museum in France. Daphne who is 105 years old is sometimes referred to as the Grandmother of Native Art. Joseph Sanchez one of the Group of Seven says Daphne was indeed a ‘grandmother’ figure to them. “Her energy guided us,” he says. She also gave artists financial support by buying their paintings for her gallery. A medicine woman gave Norval Morrisseau the name Copper Thunderbird when he was nineteen. He was very sick and the Anishinabbe people believed that by giving a dying person a powerful name you could fill them with energy and save them. Norval did recover after a special re-naming ceremony and subsequently always signed his paintings as Copper Thunderbird using Cree letters. Carl Ray was nicknamed Tall Straight Poplar because he was 6’4″tall.
Carl who was born in northern Ontario even did a painting of a tall straight poplar he called his namesake. Eddy Cobiness was nicknamed ‘Doc’ by the other artists in the Group of Seven.The American Golden Glove boxer who had a studio on the Buffalo Point First Nations Reserve in southern Manitoba worked as a graphic designer, book illustrator, painter and fisherman. His fellow artists called him ‘Doc’ because he was so caring and supportive of them. Joseph Sanchez has an alter ego he calls Indio Dali. Sanchez who is an American First Nations artist from Arizona came to Canada and lived near Giroux Manitoba to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. He credits Daphne Odjig with being the guiding spirit throughout his career. Sanchez is not only a painter but also a performance artist. He has a character called Indio Dali that rants about issues in the art world, aboriginal history and saving the environment. I gave Alberta born artist Alex Janvier the nickname 287 because it is his Indian Treaty Number. Every status Indian in Canada has a registration number and Alex’s is 287. He has used the number to sign many of his paintings. Alex was sent to residential school when he was a child and some of his work addresses that experience. I invented a nickname, Mr. Manitoba for Jackson Beardy. He’s the only artist in the Group of Seven born in Manitoba, on the Garden Hill Reserve in 1945. He attended residential school in Portage la Prairie, Tech Voch High School in Winnipeg and studied art at the University of Manitoba. He worked as a designer for the Sears store in Winnipeg and also as a consultant for the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature and Brandon University’s Department of Native Studies. The highlight of his career was participating in a joint exhibit with Daphne Odjig and Alex Janvier at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1972. He died in Winnipeg at the age of 40. Because Jackson Beardy lived and worked in Manitoba for all save four years of his life when he was in Ottawa serving as a government advisor, I picked the nickname Mr. Manitoba for him.
I hope my nickname idea will help students appreciate the unique contribution of each individual artist in the Group of Seven while still enjoying the entire body of their wonderful work on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
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