Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Aboriginal modernist painter Daphne Odjig led Indian Group of Seven

Daphne Odjig smiles in front of her 1984 work, Spiritual Renewal, on exhibition at the Kamploops Art Gallery in June, 2008. Ms. Odjig was widely celebrated for her influence on aboriginal art.

Murray Mitchell/The Globe and Mail

Daphne Odjig blended aboriginal experience with what she had learned from European artists to produce a uniquely expressive style of contemporary painting that helped propel aboriginal art out of the anthropology museums and kitschy gift shops into galleries of fine art – a tectonic shift in Canadian art history.

Works by the self-taught artist now belong to the collections of the National Gallery, the McMichael gallery, Wilfrid Laurier University, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Imperial Oil, Kamloops Art Gallery, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, El Al Airlines, and countless other public and private collections. Her paintings have appeared on postage stamps and been exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Lahr, Germany.

Her 1978 masterpiece, The Indian in Transition, an 8-metre-long mural hanging in the Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization), has provided a colourful backdrop to many government announcements and awards presentations. The First Nations artist and curator Robert Houle has described it as a depiction of Ms. Odjig's "personal struggle as an artist, as a woman and as an Indian in modern Canada … a monumental canvas fired with the same passion of social and political justice as Pablo Picasso's famous Guernica."

Story continues below advertisement

Its four parts depict the intact Indian culture, symbolized by the drum and protected by the mythic thunderbird; the arrival of a European sailing ship carrying white-faced men; the destruction of the culture and impoverishment of the indigenous people, symbolized by a broken drum and empty whisky bottle; and finally the rekindling of the culture and reappearance of the protective thunderbird.

Ms. Odjig herself lived the transition she painted: from the child of an Ojibwa father and an English mother raised on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, on Ontario's Manitoulin Island; to a young woman looked down on by her own white relatives on the mainland, to the point where she and her three siblings came to fudge their origins and change their name to Fisher (a translation of Odjig); to a proud reclaiming of her aboriginal heritage when she was 45 and the long-suppressed powwow was just being revived.

Reluctant to join in the dancing while on a visit back to her birthplace, she was soon drawn into the circle by family members: "I began to dance to the drum and I became an Indian," she later said.

Ms. Odjig died on Oct. 1, in a long-term care home in Kelowna, B.C., at the age of 97, after a long and fruitful artistic career. Her son, Stanley Somerville, who lives in Kelowna, transferred her there from her home in Penticton four years earlier, after she lost her husband. "I was holding her hand when she left us," he said in a phone interview. "Her heart finally gave out. There was no cause of death other than old age."

Daphne Odjig was born Sept. 11, 1919, in Wikwemikong (Wiki to locals) the first of four children of Dominic Odjig, the village constable of Ojibwa-Odawa heritage, and his English wife, Joyce Peachey Odjig. Dominic had fought in the First World War, and Joyce followed him home to Manitoulin Island as a war bride.

Ms. Odjig spoke Anishnabe until she left the reserve and lost her fluency. She had an idyllic childhood growing up in a house with hand-carved door posts that was built by her grandfather Jonas. Their home had no plumbing or electricity, but the family was relatively prosperous since they owned a team of horses, an apple orchard, pigs and dairy cows. It was the children's job to milk the cows before school and separate the cream.

Grandfather Jonas was a gifted stone carver with strong Christian values; he made all the tombstones in the local cemetery and would not tolerate any profanity in the house. The children went to a Jesuit-run school where art was a young Daphne's favourite subject; Daphne dreamed of being a teacher until she developed rheumatic fever and had to drop out of Grade 8. She remained fragile for the next three years and was often confined to bed. It was during this period that she grew close to her grandfather, who encouraged her to draw, and let her watch him work. "I was his little shadow," she later recalled.

Story continues below advertisement

Many years later she painted a triple portrait of her mother, father and Grandfather Jonas and called it Three Powerful Influences.

Her mother, Joyce, was fragile and lacked the strength to run a large household. Her energy was further drained when her mother (Daphne's widowed English grandmother) showed up with Joyce's eight younger brothers and moved in. According to the 1992 biography, A Paintbrush in My Hand by Rosemond Vanderburgh and Beth Southcott, the Odjigs were relieved when Grandma Peachey and her boys moved to Parry Sound, Ont.

When she was 18, her beloved mother and grandfather both died. Dominic Odjig quickly remarried and started another family. There was no place for Daphne, her brothers Donald and Stanley, and sister Winnie. The four adolescents moved to Parry Sound, but if they expected compassion or help at the home of their white grandmother and uncles, they were disappointed. Jobs in Parry Sound were hard to find in the 1930s and not likely to go to Indians.

Donald and Stanley Fisher, as they were now called, eventually returned to the reserve on Manitoulin while the Fisher sisters headed south, having heard that there was work for women in munitions plants in Toronto following the outbreak of the Second World War. They found jobs at the Dr. Ballard's dog food plant and later at the John Inglis factory on the assembly line, making Colt Browning guns. In Toronto, no one cared that they were half-Indian. Daphne bought stylish clothes and professional art supplies for the first time. Tall and slim, she cut an elegant figure and had many admirers.

She discovered the library, with its books on art, and frequented the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Eaton's College Street, then an important showcase for artists. Eager to learn the technique of oil painting, she visited the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) to inquire about studying there but could not afford to give up her job. She would teach herself to paint through intense solitary artistic experimentation over the next decade. She did not know other artists.

After the war ended, she moved to British Columbia to marry Paul Somerville, a Mohawk RCAF veteran with whom she had fallen in love in Toronto. She became stepmother to his son, David, from his first marriage, and in 1948, gave birth to their son, Stanley.

Story continues below advertisement

Paul worked in a psychiatric hospital but dreamed of starting a strawberry farm. The couple bought 30 fertile acres on Cultus Lake, B.C.

In 1960, before they could bring in their first harvest, Paul died tragically in a car accident. Two years later, she sold the farm and married Chester Beavon, a friend and colleague of her late husband at the psychiatric hospital. Whenever she could, she painted furiously in the European Impressionist manner, read art magazines, visited art museums and sought out the works of Picasso. When her new husband was hired as a community development officer in Northern Manitoba, the couple were posted to Easterville, a community of Chemawawin Cree displaced from their traditional fishing grounds by the hydroelectric dam at Grand Rapids. Ms. Odjig saw first hand the misery of indigenous people who were losing their soul-sustaining traditions and culture. She started filling her sketchbooks with pictures of the local people.

In 1964, she revisited her home village on Manitoulin Island and reconnected with her native heritage. From the older women of the community, she heard the legends of her people and gradually found a new subject matter and style for her paintings and drawings, influenced by Picasso's distortions but distinctly non-European. From then on, she signed her work with her birth name: Odjig. She began to sell her work instead of giving it away and in 1967, had her first solo exhibition at the Lakehead Art Centre in Thunder Bay. That same year her work was shown at Expo 67, in Montreal.

Around that time she was commissioned by Dr. Herbert Schwarz to paint a suite of erotic images to illustrate his book, Tales from the Smokehouse. Curator and artist Bonnie Devine has called these paintings unique in the history of indigenous art.

Winnipeg was a gateway city, a meeting place of east and west where she finally found her peer group. She and her husband had moved there to start a small print shop, selling reproductions of her work. They later added the New Warehouse Gallery, which became a gathering spot and exhibition venue for a group of talented indigenous artists including Norval Morrisseau, Jackson Beardy, Alex Janvier, Carl Ray, Eddy Cobiness, and Joseph Sanchez, all hungry for recognition as serious artists. None wanted to be seen as an ethnographic curiosity. With them she co-founded Professional Indian Artists Inc., sometimes dubbed the Indian Group of Seven.

"I consider Daphne to be the grandmother of contemporary indigenous art especially for us Anishinaabe. She was instrumental in helping other artists blossom, too. She kicked in doors for us all," said Wanda Nanibush, curator of indigeneous art at the AGO.

By the end of the 1970s, Ms. Odjig was tired of running the gallery. She had received major commissions and needed time to paint. She was now moving away from legend paintings to expressions of her own feelings and history, as well as the history of her people. She and Chester sold the gallery and moved back to B.C. to Shushwap Lake, where she built a studio large enough for her murals. Thus began Ms. Odjig's most productive period as an artist.

Many honours were bestowed on her, including the Order of Canada in 1986, an Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1998, a Governor-General's Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2007, and seven honorary degrees. She was the subject of a play, The Art Show, by Alanis King, and of several documentary films, including one made for Japanese television. Chief Wakageshig presented her with an eagle feather on behalf of the Wikwemikong reserve, an honour previously reserved for warriors or great hunters.

In 2007-08 a major travelling retrospective of her work was organized by Ms. Devine, who teaches at OCAD University. It was seen in galleries across the country including the Art Gallery of Sudbury, the McMichael and the National Gallery in Ottawa.

And in 2014, the Indian Group of Seven, which Ms. Odjig helped to found four decades earlier, finally received a full retrospective, curated by Michelle LaVallee, that included 120 paintings and drawings. It was seen in the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the MacKenzie Gallery in Regina, among other places. By then, not many of the group's members were left. Mr. Beardy died of a heart attack at 40, Mr. Morrisseau was destroyed by Parkinson's disease and alcohol, Carl Ray was murdered at 35, stabbed in a dispute over money.

But Daphne Odjig went on painting. In her senior years, she was an elder among Indian artists, a vivid silver-haired presence adorned with plenty of chunky turquoise jewellery. "She established a path forward for native artists," Ms. Devine said. "There was a template to follow."

Ms. Odjig leaves her son, Stanley Somerville; stepson, David Somerville; brother, Donald Fisher; granddaughter, Shannon; and a great-grandson.

Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨