Arthur Shilling, Ojibway Dreams (young girl in dream), (detail), c.1984, Oil on Canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm, Estate of Arthur Shilling, Photo: Michael Cullen, TPG Digital Arts Toronto
THUNDER BAY—Chippewas of Rama First Nation’s William Kingfisher, curator, recently provided insights into the work of nationally acclaimed artist, Arthur Shilling, during his discussion at the Arthur Shilling: The Final Works exhibit on June 10 at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.
Kingfisher is a curator, which means that he is someone who organizes and chooses the items in an exhibition at a museum or gallery, he also possesses a Master’s degree from Carleton University and has taken a leave of absence from his Ph. D. work in the Indigenous Studies Department at Trent University to curate the exhibition on at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. Aside from his passion and genuine love for art, he has closer ties and interest in Shilling.
“He lived at his mom’s house, which is my grandmother’s house, a small house on the reserve,” says Kingfisher, curator of Arthur Shilling: The Final Works and one of Shilling’s nephews. “And he had a small room off the kitchen. And you could smell the paint — he was always in there working. He was quite young, just a kid, but here he was painting portraits. People would come in there and he would just paint their portrait. It was very unusual, but at the time it was just normal. That’s what Arthur did.”
Kingfisher says Shilling eventually built a huge three-story timber-frame studio across the street from his mother’s house.
“He would have a lot of canvases, but he would be working really fast,” Kingfisher says. “He would be furious in a way, and he would have different colours and his palettes would be filled with paint and he would be working really fast. He painted with oil, so the paint wouldn’t dry up.”
Shilling described his approach to art in his 1986 book, The Ojibway Dream, as “Time is so precious. I’m under constant pressure from within. Like a volcano, grumbling and rumbling continually … I don’t close my eyes except when I sleep, and then there are dreams, colour again.”
The exhibition features many paintings from the Shilling Estate, including the 30-foot mural, The Beauty of My People. Other paintings were borrowed from private and public collections.
Kingfisher says he was surprised when the family told him they had kept all of the paintings featured in The Ojibway Dream.
“We couldn’t possibly sell them,” Kingfisher says, quoting Shilling’s widow Millie. “They are Arthur’s life. They are his philosophy and they are his gift to Canada.”
Kingfisher says Millie was saving them for a national exhibition of Shilling’s work.
“And one of the stipulations that she had in her own mind about who would do this work (was) she wanted it to be a family member,” Kingfisher says. “So when I came there she said: ‘This is what we were waiting for.’”
The Arthur Shilling: The Final Works exhibition was first displayed at the Art Gallery of Peterborough from February 20 to May 22. The exhibition features Shilling’s art from the 1976-1986, when he was producing bolder and stronger work.
“It went really well — we had people coming back three, four, five times,” Kingfisher says. “We had record crowds on the weekend opening. People responded really strongly to the work. There were lots of interesting discussions. It was a really successful show down there.”
Kingfisher says many people were pleased to see that Shilling’s work was being recognized.
“I heard over and over again people saying this was really perfect timing: ‘We’ve been waiting for something like this,’” Kingfisher says. “I heard that from collectors, I heard that from just visitors to the gallery. They were looking forward to seeing more of his work and discussions about his work and why he was important.”
Kingfisher says that the Chippewas of Rama First Nation paid for the cleaning and framing of Shilling’s paintings for the exhibition.
“It was quite expensive,” Kingfisher says, “but the community saw the importance of the show and they really wanted to support it, and they paid for it 100 per cent.”
The Arthur Shilling: The Final Works exhibition is now on display at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery from June 10 to September 25, 2016.