Where Woodland Meets Pop

By Stephanie Wesley

One of the first Woodland style creations that Christian Chapman recalls seeing was by artist Noel Ducharme. “I remember he did a mural at the old Fort William First Nation band office,” Chapman says. He recalls the mural depicting a beaver lodge with birch trees in the background. “It was pretty neat, actually.”

It is in that community of Fort William First Nation, where Chapman was born and raised, that he spends his time creating art in various styles. The studio that he works in is his grandmother’s home on the reservation. Chapman was a child when he first started taking an interest in drawing and artwork. “My brother drew a lot. It was just something that we did growing up as kids. I’ve been drawing and making stuff since I was very young.”

Chapman says that as an artist, he is inspired by Woodland style, with the form’s creator Norval Morrisseau (Copper Thunderbird) being his biggest inspiration. While many artists of Woodland style tend to focus on animals in their work, Chapman finds himself more interested in creating figures and people in his art, which he uses as a form of storytelling. He enjoys creating narratives in his work, and finds that while storytelling runs in his family it does not always come easy to him.

“I grew up with some pretty amazing storytellers in my family,” he says. “I’m not really a good storyteller myself, but I find that using art to tell a story is something that I can do a lot better than having to tell a story myself. I think visual art has definitely allowed me to get my narratives and stories out there.” Chapman ventures into other mediums and art styles as well to tell his stories and share messages.

Ziibaaska’Iganagooday/Jingle Dresses, one of Chapman’s more recent series of work, was inspired by the creative Indigenous community in Thunder Bay, and also Andy Warhol, who was a leading figure in American pop art. The vibrant artwork, a combination of photography and printing, features images of local Indigenous women in their jingle dresses.


“I always wanted to do the photo-based Warhol paintings, and I really wasn’t sure how I would go about doing that,” he explains. “I’m around a lot of people who do a lot of crafting, and I was just really inspired by these women who make their regalia. I thought it would really work in terms of doing the photo-based Warhol-style paintings.”

Chapman is excited for the women in the exhibit to finally be able to see the work. “It’s going to be nice for the people to come and see the work in person. Most of the women are family and friends. They are community members. Everyone in the show are community members.”

Shelby Gagnon, one of the show’s co-curators, is also looking forward to the exhibit. “It’s really beautiful because all of these women depicted in the paintings are from the Thunder Bay area and northern Ontario,” she says. “We’re really excited to bring these women and the community together.”

Gagnon explains that the jingle dress is meant for healing, which is something she feels the community and the world needs now. “People say the jingle dress originated a hundred years ago. The influenza pandemic had really been affecting the world then,” she says. There are similarities today with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted many people. She views the exhibit as a way for the community to come together during this time.

“It’s an intimate exhibit in the way that each woman is staring directly into the viewer’s eyes, as well as the position they are standing in,” Gagnon says. “In each painting the women are standing very powerfully, with their hands on their waists looking stoic and very proud, and just empowered by wearing the regalia.”

Gagnon explains that the colours Chapman used in the series are very vibrant and really bring the paintings to life. “The colours really complement each other. It’s really appealing to the eye.”

Chapman’s work has resonated with many, and he is looking forward to the exhibit. Gagnon explains that Co.Lab Art Gallery is a place that aims to give both emerging artists and established artists such as Chapman a place to display their work, which is good news for the creative community in Thunder Bay. Along with new artists who paint, over the years there has also been a surge of artistic creators in the community who work with different mediums, which Chapman is pleased to see.

“I see there are a lot of crafters and people who do beadwork and leatherwork,” Chapman says. “I see people who make moccasins, and people who are into hide tanning. It’s inspiring to see that.”

“It’s pretty amazing, I am surrounded by artists all the time,” Chapman says. “My partner Jean is an artist too, my sister. It’s just great. There’s a lot of inspiration flowing from all over the place.”

Ziibaaska’Iganagooday/Jingle Dresses will be on display until March 20 at the Co.Lab Art Gallery & Arts Centre in Goods & Co. Market.