Artist explores race relations through ceramic

Photos by Kenji Nagai

Photo by Kenji Nagai

Judy Chartrand’s ceramic collection, What a Wonderful World, is showcased at Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. The pots, bowls and ceramics explore issues of colonization, racism and relations between indigenous and non-native community. The gallery is featuring Chartrand’s work in aims of working towards its mission of building bridges between native artists and the non-native community. Chartrand’s work will be displayed from Oct. 19, 2016 to Feb.19, 2017.

“A lot of Chartrand’s work is about people who don’t experience [racism],” says Beth Carter, curator of the Bill Reid Art Gallery. “I don’t get racism in my life…for native people, it’s constant, it’s draining. We as non-indigenous people have a hard time to understand, we can understand intellectually but can’t understand from heart. Chartrand’s work gives us a bit of sense how difficult it can be.”

It’s not unusual for a female artist with First Nation roots to strike up a conversation about injustice. It’s a little less conventional for an aboriginal artist to talk about racism through ceramics.

At first glance, Chartrand’s ceramics seem to be beautiful and unassuming. But a closer look makes clear the contrast between beauty of the art and the ugliness of racism. For example, a series of ornate five bowls are decorated with cockroaches and old hotel signage, the back of each bowl stamped with needles and bottles. Inspired by Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, Chartrand decided to use the same title for her work. “I cried when I listened to this song,” she says.

Chartrand notes that people often believe that these cockroaches reflect the dirty and tiny conditions of single room housing (SROs) in Downtown Eastside (DTES). However, she has a different explanation. “These cockroaches are European input…they symbolize white invasion,” says Chartrand.

Photo by Kenji Nagai

Photo by Kenji Nagai

Finding acceptance in the Downtown Eastside

From an early age, Chartrand was confronted with racism. “When people found [out that] I am native, kids won’t play with me,” says Chartrand. “But I will never let them make me feel ashamed of being Indian. I am vocal, I always talk about racism, that’s the problem being solved.”

Chartrand’s own mother, Melanie Chartrand, had spent 12 years at a residential school, an experience Chartrand says affected her mother’s parenting ability. A survivor of two abusive relationships, Melanie Chartrand was left with the responsibility of raising 13 children alone while working as a chambermaid to support her whole family.

Born in Kamloops, BC, Chartrand moved to the Downtown Eastside with her family when she was two years old. Different from the DTES of present day, Chartrand and her family didn’t face a lot of negativity and instead Chartrand has some good memories of her childhood there.

Chartrand describes the place she spent her whole childhood as “Skid Row,” and as a community that is regarded as non-judgmental. At the time, Chartrand couldn’t understand her mother’s choice to relocate the family to the DTES. The ‘family mystery’ wasn’t solved until Chartrand was in her late 20s and her mother told her choosing the DTES was the only way to protect the family.

“My mum said if we rent a place elsewhere, we will face lots of racism. We lived beside the Chinese community, single white people lived in rooming houses,” says Chartrand. “There is no classism, no one is better than anyone else. Everyone is helping each other out there. It’s really a protection there. ”

Art opens up a new world for Chartrand

Artist Judy Chartrand.| Photo courtesy of Judy Chartrand

Artist Judy Chartrand.| Photo courtesy of Judy Chartrand

By the age of four, Chartrand was already showing a talent and passion for the arts. When she saw a book with Southwest Native American pottery, she became obsessed with pots.

Chartrand can still clearly remember how getting status as a native completely changed her life. When Chartrand was in her early 30s, a First Nation counselor asked her what she would do if she could be anything in life. Without hesitation Chartrand replied, “I want to be an artist.”

The counselor suggested Chartrand apply to the Langara Fine Arts Program. After Chartrand finished two years at Langara, she attended Emily Carr University. Later, she went to the University of Regina to pursue her Master’s degree, where she specialized in ceramics and was awarded full scholarship.

Even with her own success, Chartrand still sees a divide between the native and non-native community. “I was the only First Nation person in my Langara college class for two years, and Emily Carr as well. Some people leave classes maybe they don’t want to hear their work is bad, maybe they look at other people’s work, they got scared and left. I never left because it’s fun.”


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