The Canadian Art Database

Virginia MacDonnell Eichhorn


[ 5,374 words ]

The youth arose from where he lay, and took the flute and his arrows. Also, he took some dried incense-grass and pushed back the fire.  There he placed the grass, and when it began to make smoke, he held the little flute over it, perfuming it with the incense.(1)

In approaching the work created by Jane Ash Poitras as part of the Consecrated Medicine exhibition, I found myself researching biology, philosophy, history – both aesthetic and cultural, botany, literature and spirituality.  Inevitably, the imagery or themes that she addressed opened up and branched naturally into other areas of learning.  Science melded with art; intuition with medicine; religion with history.   And in some respects I feel I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of meaning of her potent pieces.  I am only beginning to understand the multitudinous significance of the segments and meanings which she has constructed.  To encourage the viewer to learn and discern is only one of the powerful gifts that Poitras brings to the viewer through her work.  Her art is a stimulus for greater understanding.  It reinforces the interconnectivity and balance of learning, art, diligence, and intuition – in short, the very mix that stimulates and encourages creation.  Her paintings and assemblages are physical evocations of the ideas and explorations that Poitras lives out, naturally, in her daily life. 

She lives on a property that is fecund – ripe with flora and fauna and saturated with her art-making which is in constant evidence both in- and outside her home.  It is a lively and hospitable environment.  Her teenage sons Josh and Eli, and their friends, comfortably and casually come in and out, checking out her artwork, make small talk with the visiting curator, and offer their feedback on how they see her work progressing.  Clint Buehler, the boys’ dad and Jane’s business manager, works studiously and comfortably in the office area of her home studio.  Mike Shokal, Jane’s studio assistant, is a master carpenter who offers his quiet steadiness to the mix as well as important options as to how certain projects can be realized.  Add to this her elderly dog, three lively cats and a pet bird, and one gets the feeling that here indeed is a special home. One in which life is lived joyfully, nature is respected and visitors welcomed with graciousness and warmth.

Poitras’s home is filled with her art. Some in progress, some pieces finished.  It is also filled with books – hundreds and hundreds of books which evidence the incredible diligence which she exercises in approaching her subject matter.  Poitras is an erudite and scholarly woman having attained Bachelor Degrees in Science and Fine Arts, a Masters of Fine Arts and two years of study in the Pharmacology programme.  These academic studies are rounded out however through other equally important experiences.  She meets regularly with Elders from many native communities to hear their stories and to learn from them.  She travels often, allowing her to observe and partake in the rituals of various native cultures.  By doing so, she brings a very humanist approach to her work. She isn’t just looking to give information – rather her work is about sharing knowledge.

In one sense this sharing of knowledge could be seen as the raison d’etre for Consecrated Medicine.  When Poitras first began work on this show she wrote:

What can I do to ensure the continued survival and abundance of our precious plant resource?  I, as an artist, would like to embark on a journey into ethnobotany – growing, studying, tasting medicinal plants; exploring not only their scientific importance, but also their spiritual significance to various cultures.(2)

Essentially, ethnobotany is the study of how and why people use and conceptualize plants in their local environment. In 1895, at a lecture in Philadelphia, Dr. John Harshberger used the term "ethno-botany" to describe his field of inquiry, which he defined as the study of "plants used by primitive and aboriginal people." In 1896, Harshberger published the term and suggested "ethno-botany" be a field which elucidates the "cultural position of the tribes who used the plants for food, shelter or clothing" (Harshberger 1896). The term quickly began to be used and a new field was opened. Until the turn of the 20th century, ethnobotany was primarily the study of native uses of plants.

But in 1916 some new theoretical notions and methodologies were introduced. At this time ethnobotany became more than collecting plants and procuring native names, but became "scientific work" worthy of scientific methods of investigation. Ethnobotanists began to explain deep understandings of plant life and plant relationships as perceived by the indigenous peoples.  And it is in this spirit that Poitras pursues her ethnobotanical and artistic explorations.

As one of Canada’s preeminent artists, Jane Ash Poitras is best-known for her expressive mixed-media assemblages.  Previously, her works have explored the impact of colonialism, both past and present, as well as the political and spiritual strength of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas through juxtaposition of personal and historic imagery. 

Consecrated Medicine is the artist’s investigation of traditional non-Western medicines and the “secrets” of plants.  Here, the artist recognizes not only the scientific importance of these plants but also their spiritual significance to various cultures.  Plants, flowers and herbs are classified as acheiropoietic, coming from heaven, not made by human hands.  The divine or the sacred was recognized within them and provided them with special purpose.  This was a knowledge that native people shared and which we have lost over time but which we have hopes of reclaiming once more.
Poitras also addresses the fact that certain plants and herbs, which are beneficial in many circumstances, have had their true uses perverted through excess and ignorance.  The artist has said

I am not able to heal every ailment of my audience, but I can heighten their awareness of Mother Earth’s healing plants and to their maintenance of their own wellness.” 

Poitras believes, as other First Nations people do, that plants talk to you and tell you how to use them.  They can be a conduit to God.  The philosophy of using similar shapes and colours of plants in relation to treating an organ is called the “doctrine of signatures” and is found in the traditional healing art of many cultures.  This doctrine is a belief that a plant’s physical appearance can reveal its therapeutic benefits.  As well as listening to plants, the First Nations people watched the animals around them. Often the animals would lead them to understand what the use of various plants was for.  As the Europeans arrived and began the decimation of Native American culture – through destruction of people, animals, plants – knowledge was in jeopardy of being lost.

This “lost knowledge” is almost something painfully ironic.  These days, there is an incredible resurgence in interest in using “alternative” or natural remedies.  The average drug store now carries almost as many herbal remedies as it does pharmaceuticals.  Of course, most pharmaceuticals were based on or used distillation of natural materials.  Yet, this knowledge that native cultures possessed - that horseradish can be used to reduce the risk of breast cancer, that milk thistle is an antioxidant that protects the liver and that dandelion roots act as a blood purifier – was dismissed and almost obliterated by Western civilization which regarded them as ignorant savages.

Poitras takes this prejudice head on – withering it with a profound and magnificent visual statement.  Potato Peeling 101 to Ethnobotany 101 is a mammoth diptych measuring 9’ high by 24’11”wide.  With an imposing blackboard painted on she immediately places us within a school environment.  “Today’s Lesson” has been set up.  We are informed of the history of the red-topped Mushroom and Foxglove and their medicinal uses.  Some corrections have been made.  There is an alphabet and translations of word between English and Ojibwe.  Essentially, all of the tools necessary for understanding – letters, words and language are present and available for use.  Yet there was/is obviously a great capacity for disparity in understanding between different cultures or experiences.  This can cause the loss of knowledge by not valuing it, simply because it wasn’t properly understood.  Such as happened with much of the knowledge of the First Nations peoples. 

This work’s poignancy rings true on two levels. The first is the personal experience of the artist herself.  Her life in one sense is almost like a fairy tale itself in which love and talent triumph over adversity; something which is pervasively rich in symbolism rooted in truth.  As a child of six her mother was taken away, suffering tuberculosis from which she eventually died; the little girl was left on her own.  Fortunately an elderly German woman came upon this child, wandering hungry in the street, and took her home to raise her as her own.  This woman, Marguerite Runck, was a devout Catholic who raised Jane in an atmosphere where she could learn about art, religion and metaphor.   Yet part of her personal history, her native background, was never given the chance to develop until she was in university and was reunited with her extended birth-family.  This reunion and her exposure to her Cree heritage acted as the catalyst for the over twenty-five years of art-making that Poitras has since devoted herself to.

In Linked Histories: Recent Art by First Nations People Pamela McCallum describes the image of the blackboard itself, with its echoes of residential schools and forced learning imposed on Native Children, as a disquieting symbol. It is also an imposing metaphor for non-Native children.  It evokes the atmosphere of our early school years where we learned a sanitized history, one that was written by “the conquerors” and thus was suspect; except we didn’t know that then.  Specifically, Potato Peeling 101 to Ethnobotany 101 refers to the “training” which Native children were given in residential schools.  They “learned” how to peel potatoes as they weren’t thought intelligent enough to learn anything else.  The European settlers didn’t understand, so they didn’t respect, the knowledge of the Native peoples.  Juxtaposed with the academic environment that she has created, Poitras sets up the second half of the diptych with images of plants that have medicinal purposes. These plants were known to the Natives but not to the settlers.  Between the two halves of the painting is a cabinet, succulently constructed in oak and cedar, and containing a selection of sacred herbs within its compartments.  The meaning is clear.    The inclusion of a photograph of a young Native man examining an x-ray, indicates the synthesis of the two kinds of knowledge – and of successfully bringing the traditional into the realm of the modern. 

In this exhibition, Poitras is not just an artist – she is a scientist, a shaman, a teacher, a guide, a sage femme.   It is an almost archaic or even atavistic role that she has assumed.  Here, the works embody ritual and magic.  They have been created with reverence for the natural materials which are both the subject and sometime the materials from which the works were created.  Some artists have made gestures towards ethnobotany – using the plants in a strictly formal sense, without regard for their sacred purpose and respectful environmental consideration.  These works are the antithesis of the ethnobotanical and respectful approach that Poitras takes with her work.
When the Plants, who were friendly to Man, heard what had been done by the animals, they determined to defeat the latters’ evil designs. Each Tree, Shrub, and Herb, down even to the Grasses, and Mosses, said: "I shall appear to help Man when he calls upon me in his need." Thus came medicine; and the plants, every one of which has its use if we only knew it, furnish the remedy to counteract the evil wrought by the revengeful animals. Even weeds were made for some good purpose, which we must find out for ourselves. When the doctor does not know what medicine to use for a sick man, the spirit of the plant tells him.(3)

The Doctrine of Signatures is a very old notion which predates homeopathy and was already mentioned in the writings of the Swiss physician Paracelsus von Hohenhein (1493-1541). It proposes the idea that God gave everything in nature its unique healing powers and left a clue for us to discover in the appearance of each plant or substance. For example, the dark lines on the petals of Digitalis purpurea are reminiscent of blood vessels. Indeed, Digitalis is a well-known allopathic drug for heart problems and also has an affinity for this organ in its homeopathic preparation. Similarly, the yellow juice of Chelidonium majus reminds one of the yellowish complexions typical of patients with liver problems. Chelidonium is known for its affinity to the liver.

This theory was popularized in the early 1600s and remained prevalent until the late 1800s through the writings of Jakob Bohme (1575-1624), a master shoemaker in the small town of Görlitz, Germany. At the age of 25, Böhme had a profound mystical vision in which he saw the relationship between God and man. Similar beliefs have been held in other cultures such as Native Americans, Asian, and even the people of the Appalachian region.(4)

However this belief, or recognition of purpose, has always been an endemic part of First Nations’ beliefs.    In effect, the plants themselves act as a conduit to God, who created them.  The knowledge of the plants’ use comes about through prayer, mediation, visioning or with guidance from a Shaman or Elder.  In this way, science and the spiritual become one with same purpose, working towards the same end holistically.

In order to gather the sacred herbs and plants the Elder or Shaman would take his or her medicine wagon out into the fields and woods to gather them. Poitras pays homage to this with her Medicine Wagon.  Not much larger then the wagon used to pull children in, this medicine wagon is created from a diverse mix of materials – from exotic aromatic cedar to scavenged wood pieces and tires and a handle made from a broken shovel.  In this Poitras is reinforcing rejection of waste which seems to run rampant in our contemporary society.  By mixing the old with the new she is using all the tools at her hands – and creating no waste.  This is part of the respect for the environment that is practiced by First Nations.  It is also a sign of ingenuity and of having vision to see the potential in things that others have discarded.  The medicine wagon is an extremely important part of gathering the herbs.  The aboriginal people have special methods for protecting and handling their medicinal herbs. In sourcing the herbs the Elder must first honour the Creator by burning tobacco and sweet grass. Then s/he prays for guidance, for truthfulness and never tries to modify medicines. As Creation is perfect already, to alter the medicines would be to put oneself above God.   Medicinal plants must be handled with special care and reverence and cannot be put in plastic bags.  Sometimes, an Elder will wear sage branches on shoes when gathering plants in case of accidentally stepping on a medicinal herb.  When the herbs and plants are gathered, they are placed in the wagon and the Elder returns.

After gathering of the herbs and plants they are placed in the Shaman’s Cabinet.  Poitras’s cabinet is a beautifully constructed object made of indigenous wood and filled with found objects.  These objects are placed with the twelve drawers and include things that heal and things that intoxicate – often times the same object or ingredient can do both depending on how it is used.  Placed carefully on top of the cabinet, Poitras includes diagrams, drawings and instructions on different uses. Some of the information is didactic and some poetic reinforcing the two ways of knowing.

Like the Shaman’s Cabinet Poitras’s Ethnobotany Station is a codex for recognizing and understanding the different uses of nature’s medicinals.  Set up traditionally this is another tool of the shaman or homeopathic doctor.  As with the pharmacy the ethnobotany station contains the sacred herbs and plants and the tools to use them. Poitras also includes handmade cedar boxes which contain peyote and eagle feathers.  Thus the Shaman has everything at hand necessary for conducting sacred ceremonies.

Uktena dipped his head below the surface and came back up a moment later. In his mouth he had a strangely crooked stick and a leather pouch. These things he laid on the ground in front of Arrow Woman. Then the Great Uktena began to teach. He said,” This that I have laid before you is the Sacred Pipe of The Creator." He then told her to pick up the pipe. "The bowl is of the same red clay The Creator used to make your kind. The red clay is Woman kind and is from the Earth. Just as a woman bears the children and brings forth life, the bowl bears the sacred tobacco (tsula) and brings forth smoke. The stem is Man. Rigid and strong the stem is from the plant kingdom and like a man it supports the bowl just as man supports his family."

Uktena then showed Arrow Woman how to join the bowl to the stem saying, “Just as a man and a woman remain separate until joined in marriage so too are the bowl and stem separate. Never to be joined unless the pipe is used." Uktena then showed her how place the sacred tsula into the pipe and with an ember from the fire lit the tsula so it burned slightly. He told her this, "The smoke is the breath of The Creator, When you draw the smoke into your body, you will be cleansed and made whole. When the smoke leaves your mouth, it will rise to The Creator. Your prayers, your dreams, your hopes and desires will be taken to Him in the smoke. Also the truth in your soul will be shown to Him when you smoke the pipe. If you are not true, do not smoke the pipe. If your spirit is bad and you seek to deceive, do not smoke the pipe."

Many of the plants and herbs which Poitras has researched have both medicinal and intoxicant purposes.  How the plants and herbs are used, and for what purpose, define the outcome of their ingestion. Essentially, the cultural context directs how plant medicines should be used, and instill beliefs as to what they do.    Poitras has created a number of works in this exhibition that examine and explore this dichotomy.

Much of her work in this regard was based on her examination of the South American Yuman culture and the Native American Church which uses Peyote as an important part of their rituals and practice.  For the Yumans, the plant Datura allows for a dialogue of transformational phenomenology to occur.  They gain knowledge and understanding in their transformed state.  Datura has long been employed as a sacred hallucinogen by the natives of Mexico and the American Southwest.  In the old world, Datura has had a long history as a medicine and within their magic and religious rites.  As with many plants, Datura not only gives visual hallucinations but also has a great many medicinal uses such as the alleviation of rheumatic pains, the reduction of swelling and to assist during childbirth.  Yumans depicts two young men, poised proudly on the edge of manhood, about to begin their shamanic quest with Datura.  As a rite of passage these youths would be given the herbs. How these youths reacted under the influence of Datura was supposed to foretell their future.  Their ingestion of Datura and participation in this ritual also gave these young men the opportunity to gain access to occult power. It is believed that if a bird sings to a person when they are under the of Datura that he or she will acquire the power to cure.  Poitras’s painting uses her signature combination of archival photographs, applied through gel transfer combined with layers of exuberantly lush colour.  Around the photo Poitras has added totems – her own evocations of guides for these young men.  The inclusion of a feather represents the link between the spirit realm and the physical realm and perhaps brings forth a wish for them to hear a bird sing, and be rewarded with great power.  Her ethnographic graffiti which is both drawn in and scratched into the surface of the painting alludes to the visions that the youths will experience.  These can be read as spirit guides who are welcoming the boys or might indeed be demons that they need to overcome. The positioning of these figures overlapping into the boys quiet and formal space reinforce that there is no true demarcation between the physical and spiritual worlds.  We may not see them without Datura, but they are there nonetheless.

Peyote Brothers uses the Yuman photograph again.  It calls to mind the universality of certain rituals and beliefs.  In Peyote Brothers the Yuman photograph is placed upon the painted images of two smiling men. These men are framed by a border of black, yellow, red and white representing the four colours of the humanity (the races of all the people of the world).  They are positioned above a bountiful harvest of peyote flowers, with a tempting gel transfer of a real peyote plant situated in the middle.  The day glo intensity and psychedelic colours of the men’s auras seem to reference the “trippiness” of peyote.  However the usage of peyote is very serious and very profound.   The Native American deification of the plant is estimated to be about 10,000 years old.  For example, Huichol religion parallels Christianity in that the Creator, out of compassion for his people, subjects himself to the limitations of this world. In Christianity he incarnates himself as a man who dies but is resurrected to save human beings; in Huichol belief he dies and is reborn in the Peyote plant to give his people wisdom. The Aztec are the cultural cousins of the Huichol, and their word peyotl or peyutl denotes the pericardium, the envelope or covering of the heart. This corresponds strictly to the Huichol belief that Peyote embodies the Creator's heart.(6)  The process of ingesting peyote is manifold: first, the participant must repent of his/her sins.  The peyote will cause a vomiting which is seen as purification – the ridding of the physical self what is foul.  Finally, the euphoria of the peyote vision is achieved.  Peyote is regarded as a gift from God. It counters the craving for alcohol and is not eaten to induce visions. It heals and teaches righteousness. It is eaten, or consumed as a tea, according to a formal ritual. Reverently, it is passed clockwise around the circle of church members a number of times in the course of all-night prayer vigils. This is the basis of belief for the Church of the Native American.   

The Healer consists of six works on paper are mounted on linen.  The images reveal the ritual undertaken by an indigenous South American healer.  The healer, an elderly woman, is shown going through the progression of healing someone through breathing tobacco on them.  It seems very foreign to the western viewer to see tobacco used as a tool for good.  We know, and are constantly hammered at, with the information that links tobacco usage to lung disease, emphysema and various cancers.  It is almost impossible for most people to realize that tobacco has positive potentials.  Even without considering its importance within many Native religious practices, it can be used to calm or to stimulate and to help bring about clarity of thought.   And it is this being able to distinguish between use and abuse of these herbs and plants that Poitras is teaching us with her work.  Tobacco isn’t evil.  Abuse of tobacco is.

The subject of Vision Quest is Poitras’s studio assistant and companion, Mike Shokal.  In this painting, she is depicting his euphoria and vision that occur with his use of tobacco.  As with the Yuman brothers, how this is used or approached will determine the outcome of the quest.  And like the Yuman youths, Shokal is accompanied on his vision quest by the otherworldly sprites and figure that belong to the spiritual world.  While this is a contemporary situation, Poitras’s inclusion of a bank note – which was used to buy tobacco – gives it an historic resonance.  The upper part of the canvas features a depiction of apples.  Apples are used to keep tobacco moist and fresh. However, apples are also a symbol of good and evil and of the quest for knowledge to differentiate the two. As such, it seems that Vision Quest, like most of Poitras’s work, is latent with multiple readings and metaphors.

Text: © Virginia MacDonnell Eichhorn. All rights reserved.

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