New art series UnikKausiga — ‘my story’ — depicts the life stories of Inuk Elder Ellen Ford

A new collaborative art series between artist Jennifer Young and Inuk Elder Ellen Ford documents the stories of Ford’s life through encaustic paintings.

Young, a retired management consultant, spent most of her time working with Indigenous communities, including with Ford’s daughter, Valeri Pilgrim, and it was during one of Pilgrim’s visits to Young’s studio in St. John’s that the idea for the series — titled UnikKausiga, an Inuttitut word that means “my story” — was sparked.

Young says she was fascinated by Ford’s stories and wanted to collaborate with her. As a non-Indigenous person Young said, she believes working together to tell stories is an important part of the reconciliation process.

“We need Indigenous and non-Indigenous working together to tell stories, to understand them, to understand the impact of them. And her stories are beautiful, it was just such an easy thing to want to translate,” said Young.

Encaustic painting involves using a heated medium to create the artwork. For her paintings, Young melted together beeswax and tree resin and added layers to the paintings, scraping layers of the wax away to showcase the colours underneath, even embedding wax moulds and photographs printed on tissue paper.

Young had been working on encaustic maps of different places around the province, one of those being Hebron, a resettled community north of Nain that is now a National Historic Site of Canada. When Pilgrim saw the map she told Young about her mother’s connection to the area, and the series was born.

Artist Jennifer Young translated Ford’s stories into a series of encaustic paintings. Young uses melted beeswax and tree resin to paint the layers of the paintings. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Stories from the heart

When Ford was first approached by Young, she says, she couldn’t believe someone would want to tell her stories through their artwork but she became intrigued and even a little excited about the process.

Ford told Young stories about her parents, living off the land, attending boarding schools in Labrador and going to St. Anthony, on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. When Ford’s parents would go to their gathering place in the winter, she would stay in Nain at the boarding school. When Ford was eight years old there was no teacher at the boarding school in Nain and she had to go to the Yale School in North West River. 

Kisijamik Attuinnaumutinik — Preparing the Seal Skin is about preparing sealskin. This painting includes a photo of Ford and her sister chewing the edges of the skin to make it softer for sewing. (Katie Breen/CBC)

“Growing up sometimes there were hard times, but the best times that I really enjoyed was when we’d go off on the land and be gone for most [of the year]. Then of course, it was come back going to school, which I wasn’t really fussy about but I went anyway, because of course, you listen to your parents,” said Ford. 

Ford says she “couldn’t get over” Young’s paintings and is proud of the work they created together, with her favourite the one about her story of going egging — harvesting eggs from nests — with her sister on an island between Nain and Hopedale. 

“I didn’t have anything to put my eggs in, so I used my hood of my jacket, so when I was going down, climbing down over to the hill, to the boat, Mom was looking up at me and she said, ‘Ellen, you’re leaking.’… Some of the eggs on the bottom had broken and [leaked] through my hood,” said Ford. 

Timmet Manningit – Eider Duck Eggs. In the spring when Ford and her family would travel south, they would always stop at some small islands to collect eggs that her mother would use to bake cakes and pancakes. Ford says her mother would always tell them to leave at least one egg in each nest. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Not all of the stories are happy ones. Young says one of her favourite pieces is about Ford’s relationships with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and how they’ve changed throughout her life. 

Ford said there was never anybody to care for her in the boarding schools she grew up in, and she believes that’s why it wasn’t until it was later in life that she learned to hug her children and tell them she loved them. 

“I used to see it in the movies and I would always always wish there was somebody that could come to me and give me a hug and say they love me,” said Ford. 

Telling her stories has not always come easily to Ford, she said. She used to be shy, like her dad, she said, and growing up Indigenous, she sometimes felt that she was “nothing” — but she doesn’t feel that way anymore, and understands that sharing her experiences can help others.

“It would certainly strengthen people if they told their stories. It brings strength to them to realize that that their stories are out there … knowing that you’ve told your stories and people are understanding,” said Ford.

The series includes 15 pieces so far, with additional pieces still being completed. Eight of the pieces are on display at Juniper House, Memorial University’s Indigenous student services and programming centre. The entire series will be on display at the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador from Feb. 25 to April 1. 

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