A Prince Albert artist is giving the public a glimpse into the imperfect nooks of a reserve home basement—paint chips, holes, doodles, graffiti, games of Xs and Os and all.
Maria Hirsi is one of the youngest artists to have a dedicated exhibit to her work in the John V. Hicks Gallery. The 18-year-old graduated from Carlton Comprehensive Public High School this year.
11 Main Street may leave viewers confused at first glance, she said. They may question what they’re looking at in the paintings.
But, like all art, it explores a deeper meaning than just its visual impact.
“The theme of this, I guess when I started this collection, was just the place you call home, your identity and family,” said Hirsi in an interview.
“Because, really, anyone who sees my art can either relate to it or know that they had it different. But my home is with my family and that’s the place I’ll always be loved and my identity revolves around a place and discovering new things.”
Hirsi worked off of photographs from her childhood home in Meath Park to create each of the 15 artworks. The children that lived there were always sent to the basement, spending their time covering the walls with doodles.
“It was our way of expressing our feelings of hurt, because we were being sent away and told to leave our parents alone,” wrote Hirsi’s description of a piece titled ‘Kids to the basement.’
“Eventually we caught on that they would let us get away with almost anything, as long as we stayed downstairs.”
Some of the paintings are inspired by more lighthearted topics, such as watching wrestling or playing Mario. Others, though, explore harsh themes of race.
“I don’t want to have to explain my background anymore,” said Hirsi.
While she was creating the collection, she also wrote a poem called ‘Half-Breed’ about her mixed Black and First Nations ancestry. The poem is associated with one of the paintings in 11 Main Street called ‘Act out,’ which shows the words “n—-” and “bitch.”
The children were taught those words, she said.
“When I was younger, I was told that I was too sensitive and that people couldn’t joke with me and I had to kind of change who I was and what I could accept and what I could tolerate to fit in, and that’s all that we do as kids. We’re just trying to fit in,” said Hirsi.
“That painting, to me, just represents our childhood and how we really were just innocent kids learning what we could from around us,” she added.
“We were told that we were bad kids, so we acted like bad kids.”
Hirsi created most of the paintings in a single day. In fact, one of them only took her about 10 minutes. She said she would look at the photograph, put it down, and paint from her memory as quick as she could.
“I had a lot of creativity this one day and it was really close to the deadline,” she explained. “I went through so many emotions. It was crazy—I was crying, I got mad, I was jumping for joy.”
The John V. Hicks Gallery, located on the second floor of the art centre, is jointly programmed by the Mann Art Gallery and the Prince Albert Council for the Arts.
Mann Art Gallery Acting Director/Curator Lana Wilson said she was “blown away” when Hirsi came to her hoping to display her collection. She walked into her office, explained Wilson, and completely convinced her with a pitch, a slideshow and a statement of intent.
“She was determined to find a way to share it with the world,” said Wilson. “It’s really difficult to do that because you are so vulnerable when you express yourself, in so many ways, but through the arts.”
“With this body of work, some of the sensitive and incredibly personal topics that she’s discussing, it’s really outstanding and I admire her so much for having the courage to be able to put herself out there.”
Hirsi was guided by Melanie Mirasty, an art teacher at Carlton Comprehensive Public High School, while creating 11 Main Street.
The mentorship was the reason the school started the Collection Builders for Social Justice, an elective course where students can transition into the local arts scene through mentorship while expressing themselves. The group recently received a Prairieaction Foundation Youth Leadership Award.
“The collection was actually accepted at three different galleries across Saskatchewan, which is incredible for a high school student,” said Mirasty in an interview last month.
Mann Art Gallery Registrar Tia Furstenberg also helped Hirsi with the installation process.
Although Hirsi doesn’t want the public to feel bad for her while viewing the collection, she hopes they empathize and want to understand the way she grew up. In turn, her childhood has led her to be resilient, and to embrace her identity.
“I started with just some ideas about what it meant, like that we had too much freedom, and then some negative things and then as it went on, as I was creating, I had a lot of growth,” said Hirsi.
“I just started to look back at my childhood with fondness and I have so many good memories and we actually got to keep them on our walls.”
11 Main Street was originally scheduled for April, but had to be postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s now on display from July 17 to August 23.