Olivia Gilbertson explores her roots

Student artist looks to Ojibwe teachings and traditions

Image supplied by: Olivia Gilbertson

Olivia Gilbertson has a mission: to explore her connection with her newly found Indigenous ancestry through painting, sculpture and textile works. 

Going into her final year of pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Art this coming Fall, Gilbertson, ArtSci `18, admits that she only began to bring together art and heritage in her second year at Queen’s. 

Growing up with both parents as international teachers, Gilbertson moved to a different country every two years of her childhood. 

“Up until university, I was interested in different cultures, but I had never felt like I truly had one that I belonged to. My ‘thing’ didn’t feel like it was mine,” she said. 

“I found out about my Indigenous heritage in my late teens,” reveals Gilbertson, though she has always been inspired by the work of Second Wave of Woodland artist Leland Bell from the Wikwemikong Unceded First Nation reserve on Manitoulin Island. 

Her talent was first formally recognized when she created a painting in the style of Bell in Grade 8 and her teachers asked if they could frame the work in the lobby of the school.

“When I was a teenager, my mother found out [Leland Bell] is my grandmother’s cousin, making him my third cousin. This family bond made me infatuated with his work and I’ve made more than a few paintings inspired by his works.” 

Gilbertson takes inspiration from all aspects of Indigenous art and culture. With her compositions painted with bold colours obtained from Ojibwe artists, Gilbertson’s art acts as teachings. With thick black lines that  define her heroes, her sculptures are symbols of fortitude and her process of working while listening to drumming are all celebrations of her predecessors.  

Art with content and meaning take precedent in Gilbertson’s practice. She relates to artistic mediums that are and were investigated by many Indigenous artists such as sculpture and woodworking. 

“I’ve sewn a ceremonial skirt from hand, and the tedious process of sewing on scraps of leather to the fabric remind me of Indigenous women who had to make their own clothing,” Gilbertson said. 

“Using hand tools on a wooden block reminds me of traditional woodcarving. The physicality of sculpting creates a more physical bond to the piece, connecting me to my Indigenous culture.”

Unlike the focused attention given to the final product in her previous works, Gilbertson considers the process paramount to her practice today. Once she chooses a story or teaching, Gilbertson reflects on how she can express what she’s relating to in a visual form. 

“I like to take every little detail into consideration when I make a piece, so I use many different techniques that I hope viewers recognize. I hope that my viewers can experience my learning with me.” 

Gilbertson’s visual vocabulary continues the Indigenous stories that preceded it, affirming their role as teaching tools while telling these narratives through her work

After a few weeks of travelling around Europe this summer, Gilbertson is back at work teaching herself knitting and crocheting techniques that she can utilize for the upcoming year. She is currently exploring various ways of expressing Indigenous teachings though a diversity of art forms. 

“Everyone seems to be trying to find their ‘thing’ in art school. I feel like I’ve found my ‘thing’.”


Art, Artist, indigenous culture, Indigenous history

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