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Artist Faye HeavyShield’s show at the Pulitzer has roots in Indigenous history

Faye HeavyShield, a member of Kainai Nation, created two new works for "Confluences."
Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Faye HeavyShield, a member of Kainai Nation, created two new works for "Confluences."

As a student at the Alberta College of Art and Design in the 1980s, Indigenous artist Faye HeavyShield didn’t see her family’s culture represented much in the works she studied.

She responded by putting her experience and that of her community at the heart of her work.

“That’s what led me to start thinking about referring to my personal history as a Blackfoot person. And even to this day, I’m still developing that vocabulary of referring to the land, referring to the body, experimenting with materials,” she said.

“Confluences,” a recently opened exhibition of the artist’s work at Pulitzer Arts Center, offers an unusual chance to see HeavyShield’s art at a U.S. museum. Pulitzer curator Tamara Schenkenberg organized the show, on view through Aug. 6.

HeavyShield is a member of Kainai Nation, also known as Blood Tribe, which is part of the Blackfoot Confederacy living on Canada’s plains. Her work includes drawings, photographs, sculpture and mixed-media installations.

The pieces can appear deceptively simple, but they grow from deep roots.

“I guess most of all it’s that influence of the quiet, or the calm, of the environment of where I grew up,” HeavyShield said at the Pulitzer one recent morning, as workers made final preparations for the show.

Faye HeavyShield's work, like "the red line," seen here, can appear deceptively simple but contains complex threads of meaning.
Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Faye HeavyShield's work, like "the red line," seen here, can appear deceptively simple but contains complex threads of meaning.

“Confluences” offers a careful selection from HeavyShield’s eclectic body of work, going back to a trio of sculptures made of cloth-covered wire she made in the late 1980s. The exhibition includes two newly commissioned pieces, each one a response to the history of Native American habitation in what’s now called the St. Louis region.

The most prominent piece, occupying much of a wall in the Pulitzer’s main gallery, is comprised by more than 3,000 small photos of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, which HeavyShield took at their confluence north of St. Louis last year. She included photos of other rivers, including ones on the Blood Reserve where she grew up, and others like the Saint John River, which flows into eastern Canada’s Bay of Fundy.

The identity of each river is important, as is the effect when all of them are seen as one, she said.

“Each of those [photos], they have a special significance for me just because of the time I spent there. And it is very specific. Each time that I’ve spent around these rivers, I recall the scent, the smell. It’s very much alive, but also fragile,” HeavyShield said.

The photos are encased by an aluminum frame, which suggests, she said, the ways human industry often “brackets” rivers.

“Contemporary Indigenous art is incredibly vibrant and important but has, you know, historically been overlooked. Faye has had a groundbreaking practice for close to four decades and has made remarkable work. But it hasn’t been widely seen, especially in the United States,” said Schenkenberg.

Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Faye HeavyShield created a piece from thousands of photos of rivers.

HeavyShield has received more recognition from the Canadian institutional art world in recent years. She received one of the country’s most prestigious art prizes in 2022 and had her first major solo exhibition earlier this year in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan. She’ll soon create a piece for St. Louis Art Museum, which will be exhibited with pieces from its collection of Native American art.

Pieces in “Confluence” that haven’t been exhibited before in the U.S. include “Fort Belly,” a mound-like floor sculpture the color of earth. It includes wooden stakes that suggest the forts of white colonizers as well as the wooden posts of Blackfoot lodges. Also making its stateside debut is the sculpture “Untitled (1992),” whose shape alludes to the shape of teepees as well as a human skeleton.

On her St. Louis visit last year, HeavyShield also spent a day at Cahokia Mounds. Her second commissioned piece in the Pulitzer exhibition is a tribute to the mound-builders. A carefully arranged grid of small, plaster mounds sits on the floor of one gallery. They are accompanied by a simple line drawing on the adjacent wall, which interprets the mounds and borrow pits, from which soil was removed, as a kind of heartbeat.

She hadn’t been familiar with the history of Cahokia, where the largest Indigenous settlement north of Mexico once thrived. But on her visit, she found it easy to imagine what life was like there.

“It was almost like time travel. You could feel just how vibrant and vital that community was,” she said. “That history, just because it’s not stored in a book — that doesn’t mean it’s not still alive in the descendants of the people that lived there. That DNA is retained.”

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.