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Beadwork hits Canada's capital featuring local artists

Local beadwork artists have pieces being shown in a touring exhibition currently in Ottawa.

FORT WILLIAM FIRST NATION — Two beadwork artists can now say they've had pieces shown at an international art gallery. 

Justine Gustafson and Jean Marshall, residents of Fort William First Nation, both have pieces in the Radical Stitch show at the National Gallery of Canada. 

The exhibition showcases bead and quill work from Indigenous artists across Canada. 

The show started in Hamilton, stopped at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery and is now in Ottawa. Both Gustafson and Marshall said they felt honoured to be part of the travelling exhibit. 

"I was in awe," said Marshall. 

"I couldn't believe I was asked to be a part of it."

Gustafson said it was Marshall who encouraged her to be in the exhibit. 

"I get tagged on my Instagram of people who are just in awe with the bear (that she made). It makes me happy that people . . . love it and they feel a connection to it.

Marshall said doing beadwork grounds her and she is excited for the items to be featured in a public forum. 

"When our work goes out into public spaces, the work does a job that I think we don't realize it's doing. 

"We did the work for our own selves . . . it's medicine for ourselves. But then once it goes out, it's always like 'oh wow, this work made someone feel like this' or somehow it resonated for them and it helped them with their healing."

Marshall used home-tanned moose hide for her three-piece submission. 

The items are called Mushkiki, Mooz, and Waboose, representing medicine, moose, and rabbit. Their link is food and taking care of yourself. 

"It's kind of like like plates of food, but to acknowledge our traditional life ways of eating, eating the animals and honouring them for the gifts that they have."

Gustafson said her beaded bag will eventually be a gift for her parents as part of their healing after her brother died in 2015. 

She was feeling depressed and wasn't doing any beadwork until one day when she decided to start on the project one panel at a time and spent a few years working on the piece until it was completed. 

Marshall said she originally got into beading through her family. At one point, she was unemployed and used her work to support herself. 

"I picked it up and I started selling little beaded frames. I would bead on black velvet and frame it, and I did that for a long time."

She added the pandemic likely led to more people learning about beading and having easier access to learning a new skill. 

While she loves that her art is being shown in galleries, Marshall believes her items are meant to be loved. 

"This Radical Stitch exhibition is so unique and the first of its kind. I think it really shows the shift in time and how people are using beadwork to express themselves, and it is in gallery spaces.

"For my own self, I've always struggled with that because I feel like everything I make is not designed to be hung up on a wall for viewing. It's made to be worn and to be loved until it's absolutely worn out."

Radical Stitch will be featured at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa until Sept. 30. 

Katie Nicholls, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Katie Nicholls, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Originally from central Ontario, Katie moved here to further her career in the media industry.
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