When Australian indigenous artist Bianca Beetson arrived in southern Alberta, she was first struck by the flatness of the land and then by its dramatic geographical changes as she neared the Rocky Mountains.
As an artist, Beetson is a keen observer, so it’s no surprise she soaked up the geography when she arrived in Crowsnest Pass in September to be an artist-in-residence at the Gushul Studio. The University of Lethbridge Art Department facilitates the program through its Australia Indigenous Arts Residency Exchange, which started in 2011.
In Australia, Beetson leads the team in the Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art program at Griffith University. During her residency in Canada, she says she wants to know how the Aboriginal experience in Australia compares with that in Canada.
"There are so many similarities between Australian and Canadian Aboriginal culture. The national apologies were on the same day in Australia and Canada. The issues around assimilation and the impact of assimilation are extremely similar. You’ve got reserves; we’ve got missions and there’s a lot of the same social issues around the missions as there are around reserves,” says Beetson.
She’s been exploring the similarities in Aboriginal culture and creating artworks that have been influenced or inspired by the southern Alberta locale. That’s no easy task as Beetson is sensitive to appropriating cultural images or symbols.
“It’s kind of hunting and gathering of images and putting them together in one big pot to create work. It’s always a challenge making work outside your own country,” she says.
One image that keeps popping up is the cross, whether the vertical cross on a church or a horizontal cross like the one that appears on a railway crossing sign. Diamonds and circles have also been playing around the edges of her mind.
She’s been working on a 365-day self-portraiture project that is part of her doctoral work. Each day she takes a series of self-portraits and posts one of them to a social media site. When she first arrived in Crowsnest Pass, her self-portraits frequently showed her feet, something she suspects is due to her feeling that she was standing on someone else’s land. Then her portraits showed her feet in the air, symbolizing a feeling of being a little lost in the new landscape.
“My work is about my country and my land and my identity. Being in someone else’s country, creating a work is always a challenge but there’s elements, motifs and symbols that kind of keep resonating and that’s where I’m focusing a lot of work,” says Beetson.
Identity is also central to Beetson’s work, historically and politically. Her work touches on the loss and rebuilding of identity, something that she sees her students grapple with, too.
“I often say to them ‘Until you feel comfortable in your skin you can’t really move forward,’” she says.
She has seen the healing power of art, regardless of the skill of the artist. When she worked in community art for a local government, they worked with people who are called drones. She explains they are typically alcoholics who live in a public park. They hang about on the outskirts, make plenty of noise and annoy people. The art project involved painting a block of public toilets, a place where many people had taken their own lives. One of the rules was that people had to stay sober if they were involved in the art project.
“The whole time we were doing it — it lasted about three weeks — they did not drink. They guarded that toilet block with their life because they had a purpose and they had something to do,” says Beetson. “They did an amazing job. I was trying to get an arts and cultural centre for them for that reason. A lot of the time we need something like that because the only way we know to heal the pain or not feel the pain is through drinking or substance abuse. I’ve seen it so many times. They get drawing or writing or just sort of making and moving and they’re getting it out. It doesn’t matter if it’s good; it’s cathartic.”
Beetson understands the catharsis that can come with doing art because it helped her cope as a child.
“I was dyslexic so I always struggled with education and school and reading. I was always creative but never thought I was very good at art because I couldn’t draw,” she says. “I was an outsider and I found it difficult to make friends because I travelled around a lot as a child and changed schools and was dislocated quite a lot. It was always a difficult process so I used to go and hide in the art room. It was where I felt comfortable and it was my way of communicating without being judged because of my learning issues.”
Beetson returns to Australia later this month. She says the artist-in-residency program has given her the luxury of time to focus on her art, do research and just look.
She is one of the many artists-in-residence who has worked out of the Gushul Studio since the residency program first began in the late 1980s. The program initially operated on a lease agreement with several Crowsnest Pass organizations. The property and buildings were gifted to the U of L in the early 1990s. The artist-in-residence has proven to be a popular program, with some artists and scholars returning every year.