Visits to art galleries can frequently be marred by semi-comprehensible curatorial statements with a tenuous relationship to the art. So it was with hesitation that I opened The Writing on the Wall, a book about iconic artist, activist and beloved mentor to many First Nations artists Joane Cardinal-Schubert. Lindsey Sharman, who helped install the artist’s final show in Calgary in 2009, is a curator at the University of Calgary and the editor behind this compilation of essays. I wondered if the powerful vision and visceral impact of Cardinal-Schubert’s work would be numbed by art-speak.
The first essay by Mike Schubert, the artist’s husband for over 40 years, dispelled my wildly inaccurate preconceptions. He begins with a poignant image of Cardinal-Schubert’s father teaching his kids by drawing in sawdust on a woodworking shop floor. Another story describes Joane’s school experience where the nuns put her in a shower and brushed her down with a broom. Her mother was a nurse and fastidious about cleanliness, but the nuns assumed that Indigenous (Kainai Nation) ancestry meant Joane had to be cleansed of lice.
Schubert sets the tone—the reader feels as if they are sitting by a fire and not in an art history seminar—and the rest of the contributors don’t disappoint. Intimate anecdotes interweave with eye-opening insights into the artist’s spiritual, political and artistic views. Monique Westra, a curator, art historian and teacher, describes how she ran into Cardinal-Schubert shortly after the artist’s cancer diagnosis. Westra was astonished to learn that she had refused medical treatment. Only later did Westra realize that for Cardinal-Schubert art was the trusted healer. For instance, the “Dawn Quilt” depicts ghostly horses galloping across a crystalline blue sky. The artist commented on this series: “We, as the horse messengers, journey into the future, protected by our ancestors who remain with us always.”
But Cardinal-Schubert’s impact reaches much further than a large body of evocative and intensely personal artwork. It is not without reason that her nickname is “Joane of Art.” Cardinal-Schubert’s potent cultural pride and mentorship contributed to a prairie renaissance of top-notch Indigenous artists. The last show she curated, “Narrative Quest”—a part of the collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts—which she didn’t get to see, is a lasting testament to her labours.
I finished this book with an eerie sense that I truly met, almost conversed with, a woman whose legacy deserves a place of honour in the annals of Canadian history. The Writing on the Wall is a fitting tribute to an artist whose contribution, like the vibrant colours in her paintings, will not fade.
—Agnieszka Matejko is an artist, teacher and writer in Edmonton.