Artist Feature – Mary McPherson

Local artist captures the ideology of identity in her artwork

By: Savanah Tillberg, Staff Writer

Determination of one’s place in the world can be intimidating and is often a source of confusion. The challenge of this task lies in the complexity of one’s identity and how they choose to reveal themselves to the world. Artists often use their creations to expose and express themselves, from identities, beliefs, and curiosity. This certainly stands true for local artist Mary McPherson.

Born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Mary McPherson is a 20-year-old Visual Arts student at Lakehead University. McPherson has been drawing since she could hold a pencil, but says her passion for art really developed in high school and attributes this to her art teacher at the time. Although her preferred medium is graphite, she also enjoys experimenting with clay and sculpting. In an interview with The Argus, McPherson explained that through her classes at LU she has been able to expand her understanding of drawing and how other mediums such as sewing, beading, and sculpting can be incorporated in her work.

In addition to studying Visual Arts, McPherson fills up her elective courses with Indigenous learning classes and hopes to earn a second degree in the subject. She explained that completing a double major degree was less important to her, but rather she wants to ensure she has the opportunity to take as many Indigenous-learning courses as possible. “They’re really transformative for me,” she added, “it’s about learning about myself and where I fit in the world.” McPherson’s father is Ojibwe and grew up in Couchiching First Nation, and her mother is Irish. She uses her education opportunities as well as her artistic ability to explore her identity.

McPherson said her art has recently been about “defined colonial practices and exploring how colonialism impacts me, my family and my people – it’s a very personal subject for me.”  She described herself as “white-passing” and explained how that privilege complicates her situation because she is often disassociated with her culture and people. McPherson lamented the fact that she does not know her language, as her father cannot remember it from when he was young and now says that it is “completely unrecognizable” to him. “My dad went to day school but my aunts and uncles were placed in residential schools,” she said. Despite the historical trauma endured by her family and people, McPherson said she was lucky to be raised the way she was, “with the core values of Indigenous peoples.” For her, life as an Indigenous person is “really a matter of my experiences and how I put my values out there.”

McPherson’s work demonstrates a clear theme of the lasting effects of westernized assimilation of Indigenous peoples and colonialism on Aboriginal culture. In high school she became more aware of the lack of tolerance and racism directed at her people and from there she began exploring her identity through her art. She recalled a specific event that took place one night outside of a local McDonalds, where an Indigenous man was confronted by a non-Indigenous woman, who began to yell racist and derogatory rhetoric. McPherson was young at the time but the event sparked a fire inside her. She explained the immense anger she felt while listening to the woman’s provocative speech about her people. She said it was instances such as these that triggered the questions that she now incorporates in her art: “Who am I and what’s going on around me?”

Currently, McPherson has several pieces on display at Calico Coffeehouse that all incorporate her “colonial practices” theme. She talked about one particular piece entitled “Popcorn Elder” and how she was hesitant to display it to the public. The piece is representative of the historical perspectives of Indigenous peoples that exist in a postcolonial world. She explained that there are two sources for Indigenous history: the “holders of the culture, being the elders, and the historical interpretations created by non-natives.” An escalating issue in this region is the self-identification as an elder “without really earning the position.” She explained that the issue surrounding these self-proclaimed elders is, in many instances, their lack of cultural experience. “Many of these elders experienced ceremonies when they were children but after that mostly experienced residential schools,” she said. She expressed her concern of having these elders placed on pedestals by colonial society as “symbols of greatness,” and added that as a society we must be very critical of that notion because those are the very people who experienced devastating attempts of assimilation. She said it is important to “know who we can trust as determinants of what our culture is.”

McPherson said her art is about “encouraging education on different aspects of [Indigenous] identity.” She added that she believes education of Indigenous peoples is important because it enables her to think more critically and she “feels like that’s essential to rediscovering and renewing who we are.” She hopes that her art will spark discussions regarding topics of Indigenous history and the deep embedment of colonialism in our current world. She later added that she is unsure of whether or not her art alone can achieve this goal but her hope is that it will contribute the overall desire to become more educated about Indigenous culture.

Artist and Cultural Ambassador features will be appearing in The Argus each issue in an effort to display Thunder Bay’s best within in our community. For more information email arts@theargus.ca.