Michael Barber describes his art installation on display at the Lynnwood Arts Center in Simcoe as “airy but heavy”.
Large wooden birds and the silhouette of a child fly atop the floor-to-ceiling creation.
Look down and the heaviness sets in.
Below the flying group are two weathered wooden doors with graffiti carved deep into the wood and large cut-out pieces. Dark painted figures are slumped forward, their heads dangling in a picture of grief.
The installation, titled ‘A Silent Sky,’ is inspired by a trip to the Mohawk Institute and Barber’s personal story as the grandson of a Brantford residential school survivor, known among students. under the name “Mush Hole”.
He sees the birds as messengers telling parents what happened to their stolen children, who were taken to boarding schools and never heard from again.
The numbers on the door represent “the devastation she had on those families,” Barber said. “I wanted to create images that weighed heavily visually.”
Speaking with Mohawk Institute survivor Geronimo Henry, Barber began to understand how events in his own life – including his father’s death by suicide – were connected to his grandmother’s experience in the Mush Hole. , which she never talked about with her grandchildren.
“That’s actually why I started painting, because I had a hard time dealing with it,” Barber said. “Creating occupied my mind and I started telling stories and dreams in my work.”
His wooden canvases are marred by cuts and gouges — a visual representation, Barber said, of the generational trauma of residential schools.
“I want the paintings to look like they survived something,” he explained.
For his installation in Lynnwood, Barber collaborated with other artists – dozens of them, in fact.
He was one of five Indigenous artists — along with Tristyn Day, Julie Mallon, Nikki Shawana and Michael Green — whose works are featured in the current exhibition, titled “Rebuilding, Restoring, Renewing Together,” which runs until July 23.
Last month, each artist led five workshops for more than 650 local K-12 students, teaching art lessons and “donating their wisdom and knowledge,” said Chris Raitt, arts consultant for the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board.
During a visit to the arts center late last year, Raitt came up with the idea of filling the empty upper gallery with Indigenous art and involving local Catholic students in the creative process.
The students made dreamcatchers, learned to dance the hoop and painted animals representing the core values of the teachings of the seven grandfathers.
“It was super powerful,” Raitt said. “I was amazed at how much the children knew in advance. They knew about boarding schools and how the children were treated.
Barber told students the personal story behind his works.
“We talked about how art helps us heal,” he said.
Then the students got to work painting and sanding the birds, with the older ones using Barber’s tools to mark the doors. For inspiration, Barber showed them pictures of the brickwork at the Mohawk Institute where former students had carved their names and pleas for help.
At Lynnwood, students carved names, small hearts, stars, and other symbols into the doorways before Barber painted the figures.
“Everyone pitched in and everyone was really involved and willing to do it,” said 13-year-old Kylie Varga, who just finished Grade 7 at St. Joseph’s Elementary School in Simcoe.
Varga, an artist herself, found Barber’s creative process intriguing.
“It was kind of weird, because you had to scrape the wood and destroy it to make art,” she said.
Hearing the story behind Barber’s artwork “makes it more meaningful,” said Varga, who understood how viewers might have different interpretations of the marks she and her classmates made.
“If a person looks at it, it looks like a crack in the door. But if another person looks at it, it might look like a war, and people had to evacuate, so people were knocking on doors,” she said.
Students will have more opportunities to work with guest artists in the fall, Lynnwood principal Kim Shippey said. Five new Indigenous artists will lead student workshops in September and October before another exhibition on the theme of reconciliation in November.
“(The students) really got into it and became part of the facility,” Shippey said. “It’s not too often that something like this happens.”
The name of the exhibition – “Rebuild, Restore, Renew Together” – has a double meaning, as the arts center itself reopened in June under new management after being closed for more than two years.
“The opening of this exhibit was just packed with people who care about the arts,” Shippey said of an event that drew nearly 150 people to the Downtown Simcoe National Historic Site, a stately mansion in the mid-19th century which was reborn as an art center in 1974.
“Hearing all the excitement was just great,” Shippey said. “It’s so amazing that this building is open again.”