One of Canada's foremost Indian artists, Maxine Noel, has literally taken the Native art world by storm. In the short space of six or seven years, she has proven herself to be the epitome of "overnight success." And for those who did not show up for her two-day exhibition at Edmonton's Bearclaw Gallery last weekend, you really did miss the boat.
A perennial favorite at the Bearclaw, Noel has demonstrated her varied talents each year but this visit was of special significance as she introduced art consumers and admirers to a new medium of her art - oil and acrylic on canvas.
While the public has been exposed to the softness and serenity which emanates from most of her previous works, Noel's application of oil on canvas possesses a certain vitality and attraction that is almost magnetic.
Although her show was far from selling out, it is no measure of the talent nor the success she and her art enjoys. For one thing, the economy is not right for mass sales and more important is consistency of sales and her art does have that.
Noel is not the type to pass judgment on the success of a show "by how many red dots (sales) there are." She knows that she work sells at a steady rate throughout the year. Much more important to her is the people she meets, their reactions to her art and the inspiration which flows both to her and the public.
"Last night," said Noel, "there were people who were moved to tears and I think that's what it's all about."
What often amazes the artist is that reactions to her work often came from people you least expect to see it come from. This usually occurs when someone attaches themselves to a particular work that contains a spiritual aspects. "I usually have one piece in the whole show that is pretty heavy, and from that, I sort of guage the people who will relate to that one piece," explained Noel.
For some people, she says, "Native art is the furthest thing from them" but they pick up on it from the painting and get into lengthy discusisons about the spiritual aspects. That, she adds, really makes her day.
Noel's transition to oil on canvas stemmed from the encouragement of two people in particular, she says. One is David General, an Indian sculptor; the other is Uwe Drews, her boyfriend and owner of Toronto's Westwind Gallery.
"One day, Uwe just up and bought me oils, canvasses, an easel, etc. so there was no way out of it." At first, the large canvasses were very imposing and threatening to her.
"It was terrifying because you see these huge masses of canvas...it's sitting there, it's all white and blank and you're just terrified to start, wondering how you're going to fill this whole thing," she continued.
"It was intimidating," she added, but, once she experimented with a small piece, she found it easy. "I just enjoyed, it," she exclaimed. "I just went for hours and hours... painted non-stop... felt very good...felt like it was a breaking out." How well has she enjoyed it? "Immensely," she says.
Her previous works in her renowned linear style were very precise and exacting. She felt hindered, boxed in by the enclosed lines and areas. "I felt that I was limiting myself...boxing myself in and I needed to get out and be freer."
Through the use of oils and acrylics, she has done just that. She now refers to it as her "number one love."
One thing that Noel really appreciates is knowing her work encourages and inspires others. She spoke about an art instructor at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College who thanked her for being an artist who served as a fine role model for his Native art students who were all females and "would have been frustrated" had she not been an example to them.
Noel is also aware that a lot of Fine Arts students do papers on her work. Of that, says Noel, "I always think that's a very high compliment and acknowledgment. I haven't been in the art world long enough to sort of accept those nonchalantly and still get a buzz out of it."
During her Edmonton shoing, she was approached by two young Native women who thanked her for providing inspiration to them. Noel, in turn, thanked them because she needs that feedback. "I need to know that I'm doing the message right because if they're feeling that and I'm giving them that (inspiration), then I'm on the right track," offered Noel.
As for aspiring artists, Noel sends the message that they should "break out" too. "Approach Native artists," she urged, "they would be more than happy to talk to young Native artists..." If you don't ever meet them, write to the galleries, she suggested, as they will give you phone numbers and addresses. "All the people have to do is ask us," she offers, "we're there."
Who did she always admire. Benjamin Chee Chee (now deceased). "I thought he was incredible! He is a master of the line?"
She also enjoys the work of Hugh Mackenzie and Gary Meeches, but her favorite artists both happen to be Native carvers - David General, who has already been mentioned, and Joe Jacob.
Noel is what might be described as a late bloomer. She did not get into art in any serious fashion until 1979. She'd been working for lawyers and the friendship centre in Cochrane, Ontario, when a friend of hers came up to visit and noticed a piece of her art on her office wall. Through his praise and encouragement, she moved to Toronto, worked with correctional centres and Native inmates and made up her mind to pursue art as a career. She meet a Native artist, Don McCleay, who put her in touch with the Thompson Gallery in Torotno. When the owner saw her art, explained Noel, "he asked how quickly can you do enough for a show?" That was around December of '79 and in March of 1980, she had her very first exhibition and sale. Since then, it's been one after the other. By and large, she acts as her own agent and, generally, only works through one particular gallery in each city.
The international market for her work is an eventuality Noel does intend to go after. Right now time dos not permit, not even for the American market, although she does sell to some cities in the U.S. The Canadian market, however, is what she said creates her livelihood and she always looks forward to her shows in Edmonton.
"It's like returning home," she comments. After all she did live here for five years and she does know people here. In fact, during this visit she met two or three people who live in Edmonton and are related to her.
And she loves the Bearclaw Gallery. "Agnes and John (the owners) happen to be my favorite gallery owners," she states matter of factly.
As an artist, she also shared with our paper, "Windspeaker," her praises for art which has been a real eye opener. "It has sensitized me to things round me...I have a greater appreciation for people and like in general because, as an artist, you are forever observing, paying special attention to detail, and so on."
Noel is happy, fulfilled and a super-fine individual.. Her work is doing well and may be viewed at the Bearclaw Gallery where there are always some of her works on display.