The Canadian Art Database

Robert Houle

Faye HeavyShield

(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)
[ 872 words ]

The creative conflict between abstract forms and representation is what makes the work of the Calgary-based artist Faye HeavyShield enigmatic. Her sculptural metaphors of the human body and architecture come from her earliest and strongest recollections of childhood as a Blood in southern Alberta. They are like historical flashes that help to illuminate a changed world, an ever-shifting reality where one's personal and individual history becomes the centre of power, the power of decision, the act of deciding, drawn not so much from being part of a minority as from being separate from the majority.

HeavyShield uses memory as one of the most important elements in her creative process, through which she maps out a territory whose signposts consist of knowing how to speak the Blackfoot language, of seeing how to construct the ceremonial Sundance, and of feeling why there is beauty in an animal's gaze. She uses those cultural signposts as mnemonic devices to bring into visual being objects which are to her fragments of reality as they actually appear without the traditional and familiar conventions of perception. The world of a traveller in time and space, an observer of non-linear dimensions, has to have a practical method of expression.

Her metaphors for human imprisonment and spiritual alienation are eloquently expressed in Fort Belly. Here, HeavyShield uses the fortress, an architectural form of a mound staked to the ground, to stand for the protective insularity of reserve life, which can become a prison. The skeletal, spiral-like, wooden projections do have physical / social environmental readings. Suddenly the structure becomes an historical anecdote, even a warning that it could be a place of protection from a perceived enemy but it could nevertheless also be a stockade meant to keep those inside in, an element she points out through the work's maximum degree of visual simplicity. She has used practical investigations into the optical law governing the appearance of the 'fortress' at a distance, so that the pillar-like projections become more harmoniously integrated with the mound the closer one gets. One is given the impression that optical distance, an inherent quality of the subject, gives HeavyShield an opportunity, through the minimal use of form, to present a complexity of issues surrounding the relationship between the First Nations and the federal governments of Canada and the United States. The work's elemental geometric configuration has a deliberate awkwardness that only magnifies the feeling of vulnerability and fragility felt by those both on and off the reserve in the face of the possible removal of the present paternalistic bureaucracy with its denial of any concept of self-government.

If HeavyShield is associated with Minimalism, it certainly is from the Western perspective: the monochromatic canvases of Ron Martin; the 'holistic' doctrine of Barnett Newman; the 'virtual' qualities of the undifferentiated works of Donald Judd; and the abstract sculptural forms of Alberto Giacometti. This is what we would consider her intellectual heritage.

In her work Twelve Wives, HeavyShield has taken an idea which originally had the poles joined at the bottom creating a circumferential structure. As if to recall the old nomadic way of the Blood, she has made the present structure more portable, the same kind of portability required of tipi poles in former times. Her style of elongation, an aesthetic equivalent of perceived reality, makes this primordial paradigm a force of corporeal presence. This work easily recalls her plaque sculptures of the late 1980s, which were modelled from a cultural memory corresponding to a desire to create actual objects to express something she saw in things, or the way she felt about them, an inner idiom.

HeavyShield wants to communicate the universality of the tension of yearning, the fragmentation of her lifeline caused by being forced to speak English and punished if caught speaking Blackfoot while at a Roman Catholic residential school, where she was also spiritually disenfranchised from the ceremonial life associated with shamanism. Her work operates on a level of abstraction that is beyond words and demands an elemental response. The amorphous quality of her biomorphic monochromes has a singularity that is joyful and, indeed, a celebration of the abstracted form. Her sculptures reflect the kind of homage a hunter or trapper will give to an animal before its life is taken for human consumption; the kind of homage a shaman will give to a tree before it is cut down to become the centre pole of the Sundance structure; and the type of prayer an artist makes when using remnants of all living forms. At this level, HeavyShield is unapologetic; her holistic view of what honours nature is what governs her subjectivity.

Blood, born 1953 on the Blood Reserve, Alberta. Lives in Calgary, Alberta. Studied at the Alberta College of Art, Calgary, and the University of Calgary. Sculptor. Has exhibited in western Canada and the United States, most recently in New Territories 350 / 500 Years After, sponsored by Les Ateliers Vision Planetaire and le Maisons de la culture of the City of Montréal, 1992.


Shirley Bear. Changers: A Spiritual Renaissance. Ottawa: National Indian Arts and Crafts Corporation, 1990.

Robert Houle. 'Sovereignty over Subjectivity.' C Magazine #30 (Summer 1991), p. 28-35.

(from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992)

Text: © Robert Houle. All rights reserved.

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