University alumna wins BMO First Art! regional prize

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Family dynamics being just that – dynamic – isn't necessarily a negative. Risa Horowitz

Holly Aubichon talks about the healing properties of her winning piece, Modern Medicine

BMO Financial Group’s 19th annual First Art! competition has awarded University of Regina graduate Holly Aubichon (BFA) with a regional prize for her piece Modern Medicine. The competition invites “deans and instructors from 110 undergraduate art programs across Canada to nominate three students from each of their studio specialties to submit a recent work.”[1] I had the honour and privilege of speaking with Aubichon about what the piece and her practice mean to her.

Aubichon’s art practice started when she was young. She says she “gained skills in drawing” because her “brother and dad were so good at it” and she was then “fueled by spite” to get better. The opportunity to really refine those spite-formed skills came from participation in AP art classes in high school, though.

Her family and identity are central to her practice and artwork. “As an Indigenous person […] with histories that are broken and damaged through colonization,” Aubichon finds that her art gives her “such a strong space to explore [those histories.]” Moreover, she is able to shape herself as a “constant researcher” through both the mediums of her painting practice and museum studies.

Aubichon credits Modern Medicine with generating the “largest amount of personal growth” in her practice, not only in her technique, but also for her as a person. The painting was “so fueled in relationship and healing,” Aubichon says. This is an aspect she notes that she often repeats in discussing the painting, because its creation has put “such a serious emphasis on looking at the relationship between [herself] and the men in [her] family.” Unfortunately, her grandmother recently passed away, and Aubichon explains that the experience provided “a moment of realization.”

“I don’t have any other matriarchs in my family,” Aubichon says, and “in many Indigenous cultures and communities, the matriarch, or the woman of the family, holds such a powerful role.” Not having that experience made her realize that the men in her family “had carried that weight” and she was called to reflect on how her “own relationships and way of being having been influenced by Indigenous men.” It was “not necessarily being critical of that lens, but being really aware of how that has affected me,” she adds. 

Aubichon felt the gravity of the work she was doing while creating Modern Medicine – she knew that it would be something special because of the heaviness of the project. It involved, as she says, “looking at trauma that my dad [and family] has experienced” and then going to a “deeper level for myself of intergenerational trauma.” The painting then “gathers all those feelings that have existed for many years and puts them into one.”

The process reached “a point of healing where, I think [in] this painting, I think you can feel that tension and that discomfort that something is stirring or happening, but you’ve not pinpointed on the exact cause,” Aubichon says. “I’ve had many Indigenous people in my life and in class look at [the painting] and feel those similar feelings and understand the narrative.” This collective experience of stirring is what is most meaningful to her.

“I think it helps that my intentions and my practice [are] to serve other Indigenous people as viewers and as artists,” Aubichon says. She hopes to always grow in this aspect and “recognize Indigenous ways of being” and “the thousands of different ways that Indigenous people have lived and continue to live and develop [their] own traditions and modern traditions.”

These ever-evolving traditions are also evident in Aubichon’s process. “Prior to starting the painting” she says, “I spent a lot of time with my dad or in ceremony, which is evident in the painting in some subtler ways. I knew that moment of healing had happened in that research stage for me.” She didn’t feel resolved immediately, but she began to look at her relationships, particularly with her dad, differently, and also examine “her responsibility within those relationships.” In this examination, she said it felt like she was “stirring up something really good.”

She also notes that the painting was created in a studio class with David Garneau, a Métis artist and scholar, who she suspects may have had something to do with the nomination. Garneau “encouraged” her through the process and was particularly helpful with “going through the emotions that are associated with physically painting such emotional content” and having to condense it, also making all that complicated inner work “frozen in time.” Aubichon also notes she had a wonderful experience with her degree. “My relationship with all of my professors in my senior years [has been] very strong,” she says, “and they’ve been very strong supports in my student research life and out in the art community.”

The complex inner and outer processes of making Modern Medicine certainly felt large and important, but Aubichon never expected just how important the piece would be to her career. “There’s something in me that knew,” on some level, she says, “but I didn’t expect anything to apply it to.” The regional award from First Art! comes with a $7,500 prize in addition to the gallery showing. When asked what she plans to use that bursary for, Aubichon says that she’s “been very adamant that this goes towards [her] practice, or practices.” Recently, she has been “doing a traditional tattoo apprenticeship” and wants to purchase supplies and “build that toolkit to be able to travel with this new knowledge that [she’s] gaining and give those as gifts and things.” She has noticed she likes working on large canvases, and will be investing in stretching and framing her own as well.

Eventually, Aubichon would like to further pursue education through a masters, either of Fine Art or Museum Studies. She’s now in a full-time job with Sâkêwêwak First Nations Artists’ Collective and notes that she “finds it harder to find individual practice time,” but wants to build a “larger collection” to show in the coming years. For now, she will have a piece featured in a group show in December at Latitude 53.

All of the selected works of BMO First Art! will be showcased in free virtual exhibition hosted by The Art Museum at the University of Toronto from November 16 to December 8 at artmuseum.utoronto.ca.


[1] BMO First Art! press release.

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