Aboriginal arts and crafts returning to Thunder Bay

Thunder BayOnce again, high quality Aboriginal art and craft work is coming to Thunder Bay just in time for the Christmas gift season. How it came to be part of the city’s Christmas preparations is a story in itself.

Seventeen years ago, Indigenous artist John Ferris agreed to start an Indigenous arts group at the request of Nishnawbe Aski Nation. He put an advertisement in the Wawatay News, which served the Indigenous population of Northwestern Ontario. He asked if any artisans/artists would be interested in exhibiting their works for sale at a venue in Thunder Bay. The artisans would do well, he suggested, in the Christmas period.

Thirty-two of them agreed to try it.

After a very successful first year, Ferris and the arts group decided to continue the event annually under their own auspices.

“It’s accumulating every year,” Ferris said. “Now, we get over 250 artisans from all over, from up here and southern Ontario, the States, even Winnipeg.”

The Aboriginal Artworks Group of Northern Ontario (AAGNO) shows no signs of letting up. Each year, Indigenous artisans and artists bring their wares to Thunder Bay to sell as Christmas and birthday gifts to shoppers looking for quality Indigenous artwork. The urban venue gives the artists from remote Indigenous communities greater exposure and a wider market for their craft work.

“The people are so happy to participate,” he adds. “It’s like they’re a congregation, the largest (artisanal) one in Ontario. Not just First Nations, either: Metis, Non-Status, you name it. They are all carrying on their traditions.”

“There’s a vast art awareness and differences between one community and another in approach,” he says. “They bring their clothing, their jewelry, paintings in the Woodland style. It’s caught on here, and people come and buy in pretty large numbers.”

“There have been a lot of designs inspired by European art in the past,” Ferris adds. “Things like floral motifs in the beadwork. But now things are changing. There are more pictographs. You’ll see birds, owls, whatever the artists have around them back home.”

“Our cultural art forms are embedded in us,” he muses. “In fact, I call what we do Aboriginal Engineering. Look at our traditional clothing, our dwellings, our canoes and snowshoes, and so on. I believe that art was embedded in our traditional lifestyle—not separate from it—it was part of our survival. I would like mainstream people to realize that.”

Ironically, among his first art influences, Ferris cites a European source.

“I was brought up in Pagwa River,” he says. “As a boy, I used to study from my dad’s family Bible. I’d draw the shapes from the illustrations. Later, when I went to study formally, I found I was creating the same basic shapes from before.”

On his return to the North in the 1990s, Ferris began creating art courses for young Indigenous people, which eventually blossomed into art camps involving Indigenous elders teaching the youth traditional art forms in their own language. He continues that process to this day with a newer initiative, Ed-Digenous Traditions, and works in both Kairos and Correctional Services facilities.

“The younger generations are coming out with their own designs, but in traditional art forms,” he says. “They are keeping the traditions alive. We should be really proud of Aboriginal people in the North that way.”

The AAGNO Annual Aboriginal Fine Arts and Crafts Gift Show will take place at Victoriaville Mall in Thunder Bay, December 12-16, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.Peter Fergus-Moore