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Art with an eagle's eye viewpoint

Art imitates nature in Heather Shillinglaw's exhibition title 'my mind digs in the soil like a turtle'
Visual artist Heather Shillinglaw’s new exhibition titled ‘my mind digs in the soil like a turtle’ at the Art Gallery of St. Albert is on display until Saturday, Nov. 25. SUPPLIED/Photo

Indigenous artist Heather Shillinglaw is a bird’s eye-view artist. That is, she creates art from an elevated perspective as if the viewer is flying a plane or watching the landscape through the vision of an eagle.  

Shillinglaw is of Appetogasan, Cree/Dene, Salteaux Chipewyan and Scottish-French heritage. Her exhibition titled ‘my mind digs in the soil like a turtle’ currently on display at the Art Gallery of St. Albert recreates maps of waterways and land trails her ancestors crossed. 

However, describing Shillinglaw’s 12 stunningly beautiful works is a bit of a puzzle. It’s just possible she has created a new form of tactile, mixed-media art.  

All her pieces start with a base layer of elk hide. Quilt-like fabric of different colours producing depth and dimension are stitched on top of the elk hide. Finally satin, lace, leather and ribbon blended with tufting, beading and yarn create the final 3-D landscape one would see from the sky.  

Topstitched across the fabrics are poems either written by Shillinglaw or Métis Elder Marilyn Dumont that share stories, memories, or hard truths about painful memories. 

Leona Pritchard, a retired St. Albert visual artist, who now travels the world viewing art, popped by the gallery for the opening reception on Thursday, Oct. 12. 

“I’ve never seen anything like it. There are maps with textures of forests and fields. The fabrics have colour and texture. They’re so sensuous. It’s as multi-dense as the interactions between people.” 

Shillinglaw borrowed Google imagery to fashion the highly technical perspectives that took three years to create. In that time, she consulted her mother and Elders who offered additional input from their treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge. 

At the art gallery’s reception, Shillinglaw said, “My favourite part was starting over a cup of tea. That’s where the stories begin, and the honesty begins for the work we do.” 

Different colours symbolize various aspects of the maps. For instance, red symbolizes the land trails her ancestors travelled. The colour white used to shape certain Alberta lakes symbolizes fracking damage and/or the shrinkage of numerous water bodies.  

“White are the ghosts in the land where we are missing water especially with all the fires we had. And that’s a concern to me,” Shillinglaw said. Although the environmental-political messages are subtle, they speak louder than words. 

A reception guest, Edmund Haakonson, a friend who has known Shillinglaw for more than 15 years, commented on the exhibition. 

“Heather once again has proven she doesn’t sleep. This is an extended volume of work for a short period of time. Her environmental concerns and ancestral connections signal alarms that make this work incredibly powerful.” 

My mind digs in the soil like a turtle is a free exhibition open to the public until Saturday, Nov. 25. 

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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