Where would you start if someone asked you to think about your country and, using the Canadian flag as a starting point, make a piece of art to express your feelings? This is exactly what was asked of some students at Eenchokay Birchstick school in Pikangikum.
It was also asked of the students at Upland District High School in the United States, but they were to use the American flag. Then, each class of Grade 12 students posted their work online to discuss it with the students of the other country. This project culminated in "Flag Voices," a cross-border art exchange.
The artwork shows the different issues that concern the teenagers in the two very different communities. Pikangikum is a northern fly-in community, while Upland District High School is in suburban Los Angeles.
"The Ojibway/Cree students deal with isolation from the rest of the country," said Pikangikum art teacher Vesa Peltonen. "At the same time, images of 'the good life' come to them via 50 TV channels. They face a huge pull between the modern world and their traditional society. On the other hand, the Los Angeles students are from a wide cultural mix: Hispanic, Asian and African-American. Their crowded neighborhoods are sometimes hostile and the students struggle to balance mainstream ideals with individual cultural practices. Poor economic conditions play a role in both places."
The American students' developed themes of war and media influences on society. The Canadian images concentrated more on Aboriginal issues, including past and present conflicts with government.
The similarities in the work are also interesting. Both sets of students depicted concerns about the destruction of the environment. A Canadian student challenged the viewer to find the grass under her patchwork quilt, while an American student reminded the viewer that we are different groups of people under one atmosphere.
"There are no pretty postcard drawings of moose and trees; no typical Woodland Native art," said Peltonen.
Artist Cynthia Keeper's work states,"I helped weave this land...now it is flat. I once moved freely through the land until the industrial man moved in to make things better. Now I walk around with no head with my voice cut off...."
This art exchange came about because of the friendship of two art teachers originally from Thunder Bay. Vesa Peltonen and Boyd Nyberg have had an artistic relationship since the early 1970s.
Peltonen, and Nyberg, in L.A., began this project as an Internet exchange. David Karasiewicz, director of Definitely Superior Art Gallery, saw the work and felt that others would love to see it too. The 30 mixed media offerings, 15 from each school, will show at Definitely Superior until Jan. 25. An exhibition of the work has already been held in Los Angeles.