Thursday, July 5, 2007

Art: At the Heart of Society

Fourth in a series of four stories by Steven Ross Smith.

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Commissioned by Saskatchewan Arts Alliance.

“A nation must have a soul; a nation must have humanity. A nation achieves these fundamental elements of character through arts and culture.” – Mitchell Sharp, former Cabinet Minister, fall 2002.

These are wise words from a Canadian statesman. The artist observes and reflects our humanity and our world back to us. Through music, writing, dance, new technology, film, photography, sculpture, and more, artists give us glimpses of our limitations and our potential. They seek understanding of the very society – the individual, the institutions, the communities - they portray and inhabit.

Brenda Schmidt, a writer and painter and the musician Chester Knight, are two artists who are vital forces in their communities.

Brenda Schmidt, now living and working in Creighton, 550 kilometers north-east of Saskatoon, was exposed to writing and painting as a young person. As a teen she was introduced to Edgar Lytle in Dinsmore who had done a portrait of her great-grandfather. Lytle’s house was full of portraits. “It was incredible,” Schmidt says, “I didn’t know that people spent their entire days doing that. I was fascinated.” Living on a farm in the Birsay area, she began to write for the Young Cooperator’s Page of the Western Producer while in high school. Her parents validated her work, providing paper, paints, envelopes and stamps. She won an award at school for a Christmas piece, and was dazzled to find that you could “make money, and get recognition and response from writing.”

Today Schmidt is a full-time artist, having left a nursing career behind in 1998 to tackle her art with diligence and consistency. Her first book of poetry A Haunting Sun was published by Saskatoon’s Thistledown Press in 2001. It shows a lean style and elemental and evocative content, with lots of nature and painting imagery. As a painter she is equally deft. Some of her paintings lean toward the expressive and emotional and others present landscape. They have been shown in Manitoba and in Saskatchewan, in Nipawin, Swift Current, Yorkton, and Regina.

Creighton is remote so it’s not easy to access the bigger centres for arts activities. Therefore local production is essential. Schmidt notes that Creighton and Flin Flon, which stand opposite each other on the border of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, have many painters, craftspersons, and theatre productions, and there is good attendance at art events. As well as exhibiting in her community, Brenda contributes in other ways. She has volunteered at the literacy centre and the recycling centre. But art is her first love. “It’s important to be involved in arts education in the community, to awaken awareness and interest in the arts. They play such an important role in this community,” she says.

Saskatoon’s Chester Knight became a professional musician in mid-life. The seeds were laid by his mother, who taught him as a child to read music and play piano. Knight was born on Muskoday First Nation and grew up in Duck Lake. At home, his brothers had a band that would play for visitors. Knight picked up a guitar on his own and learned to play. Soon he too was in the band. As he moved into adulthood, Chester fell victim to destructive habits and says he “wasted about ten years.” But through regular fasts and weekly sweats with his Uncle Danny Masqua, he began to regain his focus. Chester says his uncle told him to “go out and experience life, not to be bound by his limitations, and to learn about life and the Creator.” In the mid ‘90s Knight reclaimed his music with determination, and with a goal: to write, perform, and be recognized. Since then, each of his three CDs has been nominated for a JUNO award and his second CD Falling Down won the JUNO in 2001. He’s won several other awards as well. He has played for audiences from Sandy Bay, Saskatchewan to Hollywood, California. In 2002, Chester Knight and the Wind were named one of the Fourteen Hottest Musical Acts in the USA, by Native Peoples Magazine.

Chester Knight is in the pre-production stage of his fourth CD, and his band now consists of his two sons, Lancelot, 20, on lead guitar and Daniel, 17, on bass guitar. For Knight this is an exciting and satisfying evolution. “The Great Spirit blessed my sons with the gift of music which we have in our family,” says Knight. There’s a special bond, and pride and excitement is evident on-stage when they perform.

Family is an important context for Knight’s music. With his daughter Laura he co-wrote the single Shameface (So You Tell Me) on his Standing Strong CD. His wife Brenda manages all the business and behind the scenes logistics. “Brenda is really the force behind us in the physical world. She is much more than a manager,” says Knight. With family as his centre, and with themes like love or cultural struggle in his music, Knight is able to reach out to both Native and mainstream audiences. He says: “A lot of terrible things have happened to First Nations people, but it doesn’t mean we have to live in misery now. Our people will survive by the accomplishments of each individual. Each of us has to go out into the world and count.” So some of his music – Cochise Was a Warrior, for example - deals with the struggle of his people. But Knight stresses: “There’s always hope in my songs. Writing music comes from your heart, it comes from the grandfathers. That’s the spiritual reality.”

With these sources for his song-writing and musical creativity, Knight is reaching a growing audience in Canada, North America, and Europe. His music connects and travels well. And it has made him into a role model.

This fulfills a kind of destiny Chester may have inherited. His father, David Knight helped develop the first Friendship Centres, and was a co-founder of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. David Knight stressed to Chester the necessity of “thinking of what you can do for your community,” Chester says. “His footsteps were big.” Now Chester Knight is teaching social and artistic responsibility to his sons. And he enables others in his day job as Academic Counselor at First Nations University. “The job keeps me grounded,” he says, “and provides money to make the records.” He adds, “An artist must have something to say and must be loyal to the gift.”

There are several ways that society – individuals, governments, and institutions – can recognize the gift of the artist: by knowing and supporting local artists; by understanding that the professional artist’s labour is just that – work; by affirming artists’ freedom of expression; by understanding that artists’ work and its products cannot always be assigned a simple cash value the way a shirt or automobile can; by recognizing that artists’ work contributes value to our lives; by acknowledging that there is a need for research and development by the artist which may require economic investment; by understanding the value of ground-breaking work that may be challenging or hard to comprehend as it stakes out new territory or confronts our beliefs; and finally and perhaps most importantly, by buying admission tickets, art works, books, and more.

And here are just a few of the contributions that arts make to a nation: they enable learning – children exposed to and educated in the arts perform better in academic and creative settings than those who are not; the arts contribute to individual health; art is an ambassador and communicator across cultural lines; art entertains; art provokes thought and enlightens; artists attract people to our communities; communities of artists and artistic enterprises can revivify neighbourhoods; and artistic activities are economic engines.

One way for governments to recognize the value of art and artists is through legislative action. The Saskatchewan Status of the Artist Act (2002) “affirms and recognizes” the contribution of artists to the cultural, social, economic, heritage, and educational enrichment of Saskatchewan. But it provides no concrete steps to back this affirmation. It is like touting the benefits of exercise without getting up from the couch.

Governments also invest money. Currently each Canadian, through taxation, contributes just pennies per week to the arts. The Saskatchewan government invests less that one half of one percent of all its revenues in the arts.

John Hobday, Director of the Canada Council for the Arts wrote in the Star Phoenix last fall that: “public investment in the arts in Saskatchewan – and/or that matter, virtually everywhere in Canada – is deplorably low, unable to provide adequate support for the wealth of talent in this province and across the county.”

Margaret Atwood, a Canadian cultural icon, wrote in the Globe & Mail this past January (1/29/04): “The arts – as we’ve come to term them – are not a frill. They are the heart of the matter, because they are about our hearts. A society without the arts would have broken its mirror and cut out its heart. It would no longer be what we now recognize as human.”

Brenda Schmidt, Chester Knight and all the other professional artists in Saskatchewan and Canada are working hard, right now, to show us the nation’s soul and to remind us of our humanity.

Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

© For permission to reprint this article please contact the SAA outreach@artsalliance.sk.ca

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