With barely a spoken or written word, artist Kelly Greene, BFA’94, tells stories of ceremony, belief, resilience, defiance, sustainability, hidden histories and identity.
There is her interpretation of the laundry room at the Mohawk Institute residential school where her grandmother was once a resident: an installation with ceremonial ribbons hanging from a shawl that could be a Canadian flag, except for the three eagle feathers in place of the maple leaf.
And they include, for example, Greene’s re-imagined $10 bill that features photos of young Thomas Moore Keesick upon his arrival in residential school and a couple of years later, superimposed on a sea of Indigenous children’s faces.
“I look on my visual art as a statement but if people see a story in it, I am so pleased,” said Greene, a Haudenosaunee member of Six Nations Reserve in Ohsweken, Ont.
Greene has been named Western’s first Indigenous artist-in-residence, a role that includes creating art and sharing it with the Western and broader communities. She said the role will also entail learning, teaching and listening.
An artist’s journey
Greene was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and raised mostly in Albuquerque, N.M., where she attended the University of New Mexico before moving to Ontario to complete her BFA at Western in 1994.
She was inspired by a host of Western art professors, including Helmut Becker, whose Iroquios Solar Long House installation inspired Greene and Becker to have a conversation about art and Indigenous identity.
Her graduation exhibition became the Indigenized Iroquois Solar Long House, 1994 version – a 2012 iteration of which is on permanent display at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford.
The cultural centre was where she began her education and awareness of her Haudenosaunee identity, learning from other artists’ submissions of traditional work reflecting beliefs, stories and ceremonies as well as contemporary work that revealed strength and perseverance. Encouraging her along the way were Woodland’s founding director Tom Hill, as well as succeeding directors, including Judy Harris, Janis Monture, Naomi Johnson and Paula Whitlow.
She also received instruction and encouragement from Western professor-artists and mentors Becker, David Merritt, Wyn Geleynse, Alice Mansell, Cyril Reade and Sheila Butler.
Greene has exhibited in Canada and the United States for more than 25 years in solo and group exhibits at the Woodland Cultural Centre, at Western’s McIntosh Gallery and as far afield as Banff, Alta., Vancouver, Toronto, Santa Fe, N.M., and Howes Cave, N.Y. Her work is in several public and private collections, and she has been awarded grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.
Visual arts chair Alena Robin said the request for an Indigenous artist-in-residence is a priority based on the faculty’s commitment to anti-racism and the recommendations of the Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“She brings her dynamism to the position of Indigenous artist in residence, and an eagerness to create new installations and interactive sculptures.
“Her works introduce elements of humour and nostalgia, and a hint of irreverence. We look forward to seeing the works she creates during her artistic residency.”
As part of her ‘Deception, Reality & Regeneration’ prices says, “Our languages, cultures and traditions are still alive. We are still alive!” And as her return to Western brings her full circle academically, she is still travelling forward in exploring her Indigenous roots.
During the year, she hopes to connect with Western’s Office of Indigenous Initiatives, participate in weaving and traditional artforms, and learn more of the Mohawk language.
She envisions group exhibits, guest lectures, workshops, classes and open studios. “Because this is the first Indigenous artist residency, it’s all an open field. I am so grateful, and this is an honour.”
Her themes as an artist include connections with the natural world as an extension of the spiritual world, and of the environmental harm humans are wreaking. Colonization and industrialization are all linked, she said, and some of her art strive to address and redress that damage.
“We are of the Earth, we live on the Earth, and the Earth is our mother. We’re reliant on her and she has given birth to all of us. We need to take care of her.”