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Turtle Island fibre art exhibit at St. Albert Art Gallery

"Turtles are a symbol of hope and connection and working together."

Imagine hundreds of turtles swimming on a blue silk wave. That is the design for Ministik Mihkinâhk - turtle island, the Art Gallery of St. Albert’s newest exhibit. 

Located in the Vault Gallery, Ministik Mihkinâhk - turtle island is a fibre art exhibition with contributions from 250 practitioners. They ranged from school groups to multi-generational families who signed up to fashion miniature turtles from felt, beads, wool, ribbon, and thread. The result is an awe-inspiring intricate, colourful, tactile, and imaginative concept. 

Leading the workshops was Indigenous fibre artist Heather Shillinglaw, whose Main Gallery exhibition ‘my mind digs in the soil like a turtle’ has drawn a great deal of attention. Her exhibit is a collection of 12 stunning quilts stitched on elk hide that capture traditional Indigenous trails and landmarks. 

“Turtles are a symbol of hope and connection and working together,” said Shillinglaw. “The work I’ve seen put together is quite magical.” 

Quilt artist Dorothy Fabijan assembled the exhibit’s backdrop of blue, turquoise and silver fabrics. The beautifully stitched odd-shaped pieces of fabric leave the impression each turtle is swimming in a vast rippling sea. 

To appreciate the cultural significance of Ministik Mihkinâhk - turtle island it is important to review the Indigenous creation story. For some Indigenous people, Turtle Island refers to the entire North American continent and speaks to various spiritual and cultural beliefs. 

The story of Turtle Island begins with a flooded Earth. The first people were fighting among each other, and the Creator cleansed the world with a flood. Some animals survived such as the loon, muskrat and turtle. 

Nanabush (Nanabozo) or Weeskayjack (in some Cree tales) was a supernatural being with the power to create life. He called on the animals to swim deep beneath the water and collect soil to recreate the world. All failed.

The last animal to try was the muskrat. It was underwater for a long time and did not survive. Nanabush or Weeskayjack found soil in the muskrat’s paw and turtle offered to carry the soil on his back and create the new world of North America as we know it. 

In another version, a pregnant Sky Woman fell from Sky World, a place where supernatural beings exist. As she fell, birds guided her onto a turtle’s back. In some versions, her appreciation was so powerful, the Earth grew around her. In another version, animals brought mud from the depths of water which grew on turtle’s back to form a new land for Sky Woman and her descendants. 

The exhibition runs at Art Gallery of St. Albert until Saturday, Nov. 25 at 19 Perron St.  

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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