Ruth Cuthand is a survivor. The 45-year-old Saskatoon artist survived some major career obstacles to continue pursuing her life's passion.
She has also survived the evolution of going from Indian artist to artist who happens to be Indian. And she has survived in the broader sense that all present-day Aboriginal people have survived. She says that, despite both planned and inadvertent genocide and assimilation, she is still alive and kicking. And that attitude is part of the message of her current work: Indian Portraits, Late 20th Century, a 35-piece exhibit of photocopied Polaroid images of people in her community, which opened in March at the Wanuskewin Gallery in Saskatoon.
Cuthand began her interest in art at the age of eight while her family was visiting artist Gerald Tailfeathers on the Blood reserve in Alberta. She said she was immediately taken with the jars, tubes of paint and brushes in the busy little studio.
"Oh, I wanted to do it so bad," she remembered. "That's when I decided to become an artist."
After high school she did start to take art classes for what she calls "one pitiful year," at the University of Regina in 1977. She then dropped out to have her second child.
But she kept returning to art, going back to school at the University of Saskatchewan in 1980. Three years later she had her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
Cuthand was a printmaker during her school years, but developed a severe allergy to one of the solvents used, and was forced to switch to painting.
In 1990 she did a series of shirts and dresses, and later that year had her first solo show at the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina. At the same time she was also achieving her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Saskatchewan.
"When I finished with the masters program I had finished with the dresses and didn't know what to do next," she said.
One suggestion was that she take up drawing - something Cuthand says she had no talent for. But since she was at a loss for an art form to delve into, she tried it, and ended up creating a series of drawings and text, titled Misuse is Abuse. The self-described sarcastic work referred to the experience of being given government school supplies by the local Indian agent every fall before school. All the supplies were printed with the words "misuse is abuse."
Cuthand said she used the show to talk about the subtle, inherent racism between even white liberals and Indians.
"People became interested in me because it was sarcastic and rude," she said. "People like rude Indians for some reason, so you get some sort of cachet by being bad."
After that success, Cuthand hit what she describes as a two-year slump.
She was the single mother of two teenage daughters who needed her attention. She could no longer let herself get lost in painting for days at a time and had to find a quicker art form.
That's when she stumbled onto the instant gratification of Polaroids and clear plastic photocopies that would lead to her current exhibit.
"About two-and-a-half years ago I started photographing people in my community using a party-favor headdress that says Brave Chief," she said. "The little headdress is so absurd people put it on and they have fun. There's famous and not-so-famous people in there, children, students, all kinds of people."
She said the headdress was meant as a unifying factor among the photographs and is a jibe at photographer Edward Curtis, who chronicled Indian portraiture in the latter part of the late 1800s, using a trunk-full of props like headdresses and blankets. Cuthand said Curtis believed he was recording a vanishing race and wanted to capture Indians as they were pre-European contact.
Her new artwork refutes Curtis' mistaken impression of the fading future of Indian people.
"It's 100 years later now and it's talking about the fact that we're still here and we're having fun," she said.
Cuthand also works as a sessional lecturer at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College and at the Uiversity of Saskatchewan. She's using her own journey in life to help guide the next generation of artists.
"What I want students to convey in their work is to talk about their lives," she said. "So many students have the idea that Indian art is an Indian on a horse. But really, fax machines, cars, computers - they're all part of life."
Cuthand said in Canada right now a lot of Indian artists are too fixated on historical representations.
"They're not talking about here and now and how we live now," she said. "I think Indian art needs to reflect contemporary life."
But Cuthand is excited by what she sees in her art classes. She said while her generation felt they had to wear some sort of cultural icon like beadwork, the 20-somethings she teaches are more at ease with who they are and exude a certain self-confidence.
"There's this whole Generation-X of artists that are actually quite exciting," she said. "The artwork they're doing, they're really talking about what it's like to be in their 20s."
Cuthand now plans to keep herself busy by continuing work on her current project. She wants to expand it to 120 images and add some sort of abstract narrative text to the piece.
"So there's a few more years of work in it," she said.