Kaska Artist Exposes Stories of Suffering, Recovery and Survival at Arts Underground

Kaska artist Mary Caesar is perhaps better known in Europe than in the Yukon.

Three times travelled, several weeks on tour and with a book published in Germany, Caesar observed that Europeans seem more interested in First Nations culture and history than many Canadians.

Some say Europeans have a longer and deeper sense of art history than North Americans. Caesar’s work is not at home in today’s world of contemporary art in Canada — his paintings are filled with stories and historical narratives.

“There is no medium that Mary has not worked in during her long career as an artist,” said Amy Kenny, curator of Arts Underground.

“She’s a painter, a beader, a jeweler, a seamstress, a poet and more. Regardless of the medium in which she works, she is first and foremost a storyteller. As a curator, that’s the first thing I like to see in an exhibition: the narration. A sense of history.

Caesar’s current exhibition, A Retrospective of My Journey, runs through May 28 at Arts Underground’s Focus Gallery. In the smaller Edge Gallery is Julie Cottle’s exhibition, titled Elevated Ground.

Both exhibits opened on May 5. With 40 or 50 people in attendance at a time, Kenny said, it was the largest gathering seen in the gallery since the pandemic.

Caesar grew up in Upper Liard, where she still lives today. Steeped in tradition and history as a child, she was torn from her family and sent to boarding school in Lower Post, British Columbia. The scars and traumas of that experience remain and have shaped who she is today.

“I believe as a survivor; I have a responsibility to tell my story. She compares her story to stories she heard in Germany from Holocaust survivors. They inspired her to be open and to share her story. “This is part of Canadian history that should not be forgotten.

Caesar remembers that at boarding school she watched the boys draw landscapes for entertainment, and she started doing that too, but the nuns took her drawings away. Even then, she says, “I knew I was going to survive to tell my story and art was a way for me to survive, to heal.”

Later, as a teenager, she escaped with books and poetry, such as the works of Leonard Cohen and conductor Dan George. She always admired different female artists like Emily Carr and Frida Kahlo, but her trauma at boarding school led her to alcohol abuse.

In 1991, she quit drinking. She started writing and returned to her traditional arts and storytelling. In 1993, she went to the Tsow-Tun Le Lum Treatment Center in British Columbia and fully embraced her healing journey. That’s when she saw a brochure for a college art program. In 1998, she was accepted into the art program at Malaspina College, now Vancouver Island University, and started the following fall. She names the mentors who helped prepare her portfolio for acceptance – Sherry Bowers and Jean Gleason of Watson Lake.

At school, Caesar studied painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing and photography. She married Western forms with her family’s Indigenous forms of storytelling. She calls her father a master storyteller. Sewing and beading, she learned from her mother.

In 2005, Caesar was one of 10 Yukon First Nations artists invited to travel to Switzerland for an exhibition. It was there that she began to talk about her experiences at residential school. The respect and interest of the European public encourage it to open up. It was there that she found the purpose of writing.

Five years later, she was invited to Germany with Dennis Shorty and Mark Preston, and once again felt the interest and appreciation of their German hosts. There she met a publisher who wanted to create a book of her art and poems.

In 2014 TraumFanger Verlag Hohenthann published Caesar’s book of his poems and paintings in German. In 2018 it was released in English. The book, titled My Healing Journey: Survival in the Residential School, is available from Arts Underground alongside the exhibit.

Kenny is very happy that Arts Underground can organize this exhibition.

“The stories Mary shares in this exhibition are as varied as her work. Some are proud and joyful; others are really hard to hear; all are important.

Lawrie Crawford, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Yukon News

Julia P. Cluff