Colleen Cutschall is a senior artist originally from Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
For over twenty years, she has been working and living in Southwest Manitoba as
an artist, art historian, educator and curator. Cutschall holds a BFA from Barat
College, Lake Forest, Illinois, and a MS.ED from the Black Hills State College,
Spearfish, South Dakota. She has had numerous solo exhibitions that include:
Voices in the Blood, a touring exhibition organized by the Art Gallery of
Southwestern Manitoba, House Made of Stars, The Winnipeg Art Gallery, and …Dies
Again, Urban Shaman Gallery. Cutschall has produced numerous publications and
lectures on Native issues and art nationally and internationally. She recently
partook in an artist – in-residence in Bellagio, Italy. Cutschall is a Professor
and Chair of the Visual and Aboriginal Art Department at Brandon University, and
continues to work on her artistic practice. This is an excerpt from an
interview, where she shares her thoughts on art and art issues in Manitoba.
Cathy: You are originally from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. After coming to
Manitoba to partake in various spiritual ceremonies, you decided to stay and
pursue an arts career. What was the artistic and cultural climate like when you
first moved here?
Colleen: I felt like I arrived at a moment when there had been something
extremely relevant happening with modernist art in Canada. But I arrived into an
inactive space…One that certainly had strong memories of what had just past, but
there wasn’t the leadership in Manitoba to continue. It had died or it had
moved…Jackson Beardy had recently died, Daphne Odjig had moved.
Cathy: So you’re talking about the impact of the Woodland School Artists?
Colleen: Yes, Woodland School. It left this huge impression on Aboriginal people
in Manitoba, and certainly Ontario, and to some degree, Saskatchewan…
Cathy: What challenges did you face as an emerging artist starting out in
Colleen: I couldn’t find a public venue of any kind that was exhibiting
Aboriginal art at all. The only think I could immediate locate was the Inuit art
collection at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. At that time, I was ready to be an
explorer, but I think Aboriginal art for whatever it was in Canada and this
region, was inactive. I was very frustrated by that obviously.
I knew as a young person that I wanted to be an artist. Simultaneously, there
were some extreme barriers…whether as an Aboriginal person I would even get
close to the opportunity for an education, much less a career or receptive
public. Did I have a way to relate to them, or would I have to transform myself
into somebody else to be an acceptable artist to them?
So my whole experience in terms of how to gain a career or reputation as an
Aboriginal artist, it came about from two major political movements in the early
part of my career. That was the whole American Indian Movement throughout North
America, combined with the Women’s Movement simultaneously. Those two things
very much affected where I am today.
Cathy: You are a very eclectic artist. You constantly push yourself artistically
and your mediums. As a curator I find it exciting to work with you, because I
never know what you’re going to produce for an exhibition. What do you consider
your artistic mediums, areas of interest, or expertise?
Colleen: Well, I kind of feel like an expert in none (laughs).As much of an art
historian as I am an artist I’m a generalist. Whatever I can teach myself to do,
learn to do, teach my students to do. That‘s what I engage with. I did have a
certain amount of training. Your basic drawing, painting, printmaking
background… A huge exposure to Northern Plains Art…
Cathy: Aboriginal artists are constantly navigating around cultural expectations
and definitions. How do you define yourself?
Colleen: When you first asked me to do this interview we came back to this whole
question about whether you are an artist who happens to be Aboriginal or are you
an Aboriginal artist. For me, that question is 35, pushing 40 years old at this
stage. That’s not a question that I find very many Aboriginal artists asking me,
or concerning themselves about too much. To me it’s a question of privilege that
this question has existed for so long.
Cathy: What do you mean by that?
Colleen: It’s a privilege that you can even ask that. That you’re in a position
to make those distinctions. The biggest question to me is what is Indian art.
You only ask that question to Aboriginal artists. They didn’t direct that
question to non-Aboriginal artists. When you directed the question to the artist
their answer depended on their nationality… I wonder if other nationalities get
that same question asked after all those centuries.
Whether you’re a practicing artist or a curator, we’re expected to answer for so
many nations, and non-Aboriginal people don’t consider just how many nations
that we somehow have to respond to, to answer to their histories, their cultures
, to represent when we are not of their nation. So there is an extreme amount of
pressure there that I don’t think was ever fully understood.
Cathy: Over twenty years, you have been part of, or exposed to the changing
climate for Aboriginal artists in Manitoba. What are some of your observations?
Colleen: The energy for wanting to develop Aboriginal arts came from the
grassroots level. It came from people who were not professionals, but who were
striving to be. And of course that was accompanied with an enormous load of a
lack of management, lack of infrastructure, lack of understanding how the
professional arts community worked. All of those are enormous barriers, but
there was a growing, steady energy and it didn’t all succeed. Eventually, I did
start to see some pretty major things happen. The real catalyst was the
establishment of Urban Shaman as an artist run centre. What it brought with it
was another level of professionalism that hadn’t existed. They took the
responsibility of saying we all need some professionalism and brought themselves
and others along with them. That was a huge step to take.
Cathy: Artists seem to be examining their position more and more in a global
context. Rebecca Belmore represented Canada at the last Venice Biennale. You
yourself recently did an artist-in-residency in Bellagio, Italy, in which you
researched explorers and their purpose for coming, or attempting to come, to
North America. What are your thoughts on this momentum?
Colleen: There’s a sense of discovery. We never got to explore, so our age of
exploration is just coming about. It took over five hundred years, but I’m now
going back the other way, and discovering what the rest of the world is about.
* Images obtained from Colleen Cutschall's website,