Indigenous artist captures rising resilience from historical truths

Artist Catherine Blackburn speaks at the opening reception for her show, New Age Warriors, on September 14, 2018. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

Jayda Noyes, Daily Herald

The Mann Art Gallery holds Catherine Blackburn’s newest works of warrior garments made out of Perler beads, showing fighters at the cores of Indigenous women like herself.

Blackburn, who has Dene and European ancestry, described her vision to the gallery’s director and curator, Jesse Campbell, two years ago.

As Campbell explained at the show’s opening reception, Blackburn said she had this idea of making the garments out of ‘plastic melty things.’ Laughs filled the room.

Catherine Blackburn’s pieces in New Age Warriors are made mostly out of Perler beads, which are normally arranged on a peg board and fused together with a clothes iron. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

“We talked about it a little bit and we’re now here, two years later, seeing the full results of that proposal, that idea, which has really been seen to completion here in New Age Warriors,” the show travelling across the province.

The first stop is Prince Albert.

The opening reception for New Age Warriors took place Friday night, revealing all sorts of bright colours and powerful photography for the public to experience.

“At the forefront of this work is the celebration of us as Indigenous people, of myself as a contemporary Indigenous woman and of the future that I see, the future that I’m wanting to give my voice to and to help shift those narratives so often formed by a non-Indigenous voice,” said Blackburn.

Born in Île-à-la-Crosse and a member of the English River First Nation, Blackburn draws inspiration from Canada’s colonial past.

She gave a presentation about her journey as an artist, and one spot seemed to shake the whole room.

Catherine Blackburn’s 2013 painting, ‘Grandmother,’ hangs on The Mann Art Gallery’s wall as part of their permanent collection on September 14, 2018. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

“Many of my family members attended residential school with various accounts of residential school school survivors’ experiences. I was made aware of one particular scarring reality. Among numerous ways of reprimanding children in residential schools for speaking their mother tongue, many had their tongues pierced with pins,” she said about her inspiration from a previous collection, Our Mother(s) Tongue.

“I’m very lucky to have had my grandmother around for as long as I did and I was fortunate to hear her speak the Dene language to her kids and her grandkids,” she said.

Her grandmother is also integrated in a piece in New Age Warriors.

A portrait of Catherine Blackburn’s grandmother is fused together with Perler beads on this piece, part of the New Age Warriors collection, on September 14, 2018. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

The same portrait she painted of her grandmother—and part of the gallery’s permanent collection—is pictured on the back of one of the warrior garments in Perler beads.

The usual templates for Perler beading were limiting for what she wanted to accomplish because they were too linear and wouldn’t bend.

She found a solution by taping lint roller paper to a cookie sheet and following a pattern using that as her base, which took her a month alone of experimenting before she hit the jackpot.

The garments were on the runway at Toronto’s Indigenous Fashion Week this past June.

Blackburn said her art has been her main source of income for about the past two years, but it couldn’t come without keeping an eye on her visions.

“Perseverance, dedication, knowing your worth and just keep at it,” she said about making it as an artist. “I’m speaking of certain themes and I want to see my work in gallery exhibitions, so that’s my focus and not so much about the commercial aspects anymore.”

“I use themes of family and loss and memory to explore Canada’s colonial past, to raise awareness, and help foster empathy,” she said.

New Age Warriors is on display at The Mann Art Gallery until October 25, before touring to Moose Jaw, Regina, Swift Current and North Battleford.

Blackburn also makes jewelry, which The Mann Art Gallery sells in their gift shop.

More information on her work is available at