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VIDEO: Prince George painter taps the ‘intangible spirit’ of Métis culture

Erin Stagg’s paintings of strength and resilience on display in Surrey this summer thanks to grant
Prince George painter Erin Stagg received a grant for her 12 paintings that celebrate Métis culture in B.C. (Derek Robitaille - Métis Nation British Columbia)

A Prince George painter has received a grant for her work that highlights the “intangible spirit” of Métis people through the ages.

Erin Stagg was awarded the Nakaatchitow (the Michif word for ‘skill’) Arts and Culture Grant provided by Métis Nation British Columbia (MNBC) late last year, and her work will be on display at the Métis Nation headquarters in Surrey from July to September.

Originally from Fort St. James and raised in the Métis culture, Stagg’s unconventional path to being a professional artist took her through fields like journalism, biology, geography and environmental consultation.

“I had kept painting, all through this, all through school, all through everything,” she said, “I thought, well, let’s see if I can sell a couple of things. And I loved the challenge of doing it so much that I stuck with it.”

Although Stagg grew up outside of Métis territory, she drew great inspiration from a trip to Saskatchewan with her mother and daughter.

“Many of us born out here don’t even know what Saskatchewan necessarily looks like,” she said. “It was important to me to visualize what the prairies look and feel like.”

The paintings tell the story of Métis heritage and demonstrate the independence, resilience and spirit of the Métis people. The grant supports 12 original paintings that will be passed on to other galleries later this year.

Grants like these are essential for all artists, but Stagg felt especially grateful after the pandemic slashed her income by 80 per cent.

“It’s like a diamond,” she said, “It’s enormous to be able to say, ‘I have this big dream, but it’s otherwise impossible for me to bring it to fruition, will you help me out?’”

MNBC announced the contest on Aug. 3, investing $175,000 to support Métis artists in B.C. The grants range from $5,000 to $30,000. Stagg declined to share her total, saying only that it was on the higher end.

Other winners include Kaija Heitland, Savanna Todd, John Bell, Earlene Bitterman, Lisa Shepard, Nevada Christianson and Mia Yule. Their projects include murals, a ribbon skirt teaching circle, a Métis fiddle-making mentorship, a Métis-themed podcast and more

The grant was developed to ensure “Métis artists have the opportunity to create unique art, and new ways to express our culture,” said MNBC Minister of Culture, Heritage and Language Patrick Harriott in a media release.

Stagg couldn’t agree more with the aims of the grant, as she said funding for the arts is key to preserving Métis culture.

“Culture is not passed through mining trucks. It is passed through song, through art, through music,” she said, “That is how we are able to preserve, inspire and teach about our feelings, our culture and indigenous worldview.”

Stagg thinks this type of funding is long overdue.

“It’s important that people see Métis history as something that is Indigenous history,” she said. “The bar is set so low, any amount of participation is better than what we’ve been getting.”

Stagg — whose work can be found in private collections around the world — lives with her husband and daughter. She is in the process of writing and illustrating a children’s book and is continually being inspired by her heritage.

“These things are so incredibly intangible, so hard to picture, so difficult to capture. That’s what us artists do.”

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Other winners of the grant and their projects:

Jesse Campbell and Mia Yule

The Âniskômohcikewina mural project, led by Mia Yule with support from Métis artist Jesse Campbell.Mia and Jesse works with Métis Nation of Greater Victoria and three School District 61 schools to complete three mural installations. Knowledge Carriers, Bertha Landrie, Joe Landrie, and Victoria Pruden, also present Métis culture to groups of students in grade 6.

Nevada Christianson

Nevada discusses how the Nakaatchihtow Arts and Culture Project grant helped her shine a light on Elders, activists, and artists by using portraiture to serve the community and Nation, in the end, becoming one of the greatest opportunities of her life.

John Bell

John shares his story on how he got into making violins and bows, as well as how the Nakaatchihtow Arts and Culture Project grant is helping him achieve his long-term goals of passing the knowledge of his craft to young Métis.