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What’s the coolest art at the U of R?

The Spotted Thunderbird Healer by Keith Bird takes the cake

Looks pretty cool to me. / Laura Billett
Looks pretty cool to me. / Laura Billett

Many students may not realize how many works of art adorn the halls, walls, and meeting rooms on campus. Students, myself included, too often walk through the university without noticing — I mean truly noticing — the incredible works scattered throughout the U of R. In an effort to call attention to some of the noteworthy art, Rae Staseson, Dean of Fine Arts, spoke with me about one of her favourite works on campus.

Choosing a favourite work is almost impossible as there is so much to see on campus, and it depends so much on your path through the university and the way you are interpreting your surroundings.

“There’s a lot of great and cool pieces, so it’s tough [to choose one] because it’s about what kind of mood you’re in that day,” Staseson said.

In the end, she decided on The Spotted Thunderbird Healer by Keith Bird. Incredibly difficult to miss, the massive painted buffalo hide is mounted in a frame by earth magnets. Hung on the wall by the Archer Library elevators, on the main floor, this work is in a beautiful place, readily seen by studious library visitors.

“It’s gorgeous. It’s big and it’s bold and it tells a story — and it’s an important story,” Staseson said. “It commands your attention and it’s [mounted on] such a great big wall. It’s so perfectly suited to that place that everyone gets to see it.”

The work was purchased by President Timmons in 2012 along with another painted hide by Bird, The Clans, which hangs close to the Archives. Staseson loves The Clans as well, but ultimately favoured The Spotted Thunderbird Healer because the work is big, bold, beautiful, and speaks to the culture of our province.

“I think that it’s important to have artwork like this because it’s celebrating First Nations arts. We need to expose people to these great traditions, and this is contemporary of contemporary Indian art. I think it is very important. You think about new Canadians, our International Students — what an amazing artwork for them to see,” Staseson said. “It demonstrates our respect and our pride of the talent of Indigenous artists, our friends, people who are here making work all the time, that make work of this place, that use the land, use the animals, that tell stories about this place. I think that’s very cool.”

In his artist statement for the 2010 exhibit, Mushum…! What IS That?, in which the work was first shown, Keith Bird explains that art is a medium through which cultural traditions can be taught.

“I believe that cultural teachings are pertinent to society as a whole, as it is a basis for personal identity. The sharing of cultural knowledge creates a better understanding between the diverse cultures.”

The hide is painted with a thunderbird and a healer. The healer stands in the center of the circle of life, with one foot extending into the spirit world, demonstrating how he exists in both physical and spiritual realms. The bottom of the hide depicts a double-headed coyote with its heads pointed in opposite directions. A beautiful balance is achieved as each creature is in dynamic relation to each other, making me think this work speaks of more than just healing, but of universal connection.

Staseson also commended the artwork because of the reverence it commands from its viewer. The bold colours, the healer centered in the circle of life, and the buffalo hide upon which the image is painted inspire awe in anyone who takes the time to appreciate its grand beauty. Inspiring and educational, the work is especially important because it is made locally and recently.

 “I think that this shows the talent of artists that are working in this province, that are right here, in the area. They are making really interesting traditional work and traditional work that is sometimes intersected with contemporary,” says Staseson.

Next time you are in the Archer Library, spend a moment to notice the details of this great hide. Perhaps Bird’s work will inspire you to seek out more incredible art on campus.

About laura billett

I grew up dancing and have never been able to stop. I have been addicted to reading and dreamed of writing for as long as I can remember and am always looking for new inspiration, adventures, and a good laugh.