Jane Ash Poitra was born a Cree in Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta in 1951. Orphaned at six years with the death of her mother from tuberculosis, she was raised in Edmonton by an elderly German lady, at a time when “people did not take too kindly to Indians.” She was also raised in the Catholic Church, and with an atmosphere of prayer, dreams, and spirits imparted to her by this woman she affectionately refers to as “Grandma.” Her upbringing had a strong spiritual component, which facilitated the transition to a Native spirituality in the artist’s adult life. Her schooling was not a residential school experience, but rather a conventional school situation with its presentation of a distinctly non-Native perspective coincided with her development as an artist.
Although her initial training was as a microbiologist, she followed her Bachelor of Science Degree with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in printmaking, both at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. Poitras’ interest in this medium also took her to Yale University and then to Columbia University, New York, where she completed a Master of Fine Arts Degree in printmaking. It was here that she was introduced not only to collage, but to a non-Western aesthetic, by her most influential instructors who were of Japanese heritage.
Like some others of that generation the adoptive parent didn’t understand that it might have been worthwhile for her new daughter to have an opportunity to identify with her native culture. Instead, Jane Ash Poitras became part of the Canadian mainstream.
When she was thirty she reconnected with her native ancestry and she reports it was a seminal event. It changed her perspective on how she defined herself in the world. At one moment she’d seen herself if not as an outcast, at least as an outsider. When she travelled north to Fort Chip, it was literally a homecoming.
Eventually returning to her home province, Alberta, Jane Ash Poitras has made her perception of the clash of cultures – native and mainstream – integral to her work as an artist and as a human being.
In 2009, Jane travelled to Japan with her son, Eli, a student in Japanese language and culture. That tour consisted primarily of visits to Buddhist monasteries. The experience left a lasting impression on both of them.When she returned, while she continued the focus on Aboriginal history, culture and spirituality that had informed and inspired her previous work, her new work subsequently began to incorporate Japanese elements, and their placement according to Japanese art customs. Subsequent works trace the new artistic journey which she has traveled since, culminating in a concise—and dramatic—body of work.
Poitras is now an internationally acclaimed visual artist whose work has been showcased in dozens of solo and group exhibitions around the world, and can be found in many prestigious public, private and commercial collections. She is a longtime lecturer at the University of Alberta and a much-in-demand guest lecturer across North America and overseas.
Respected for her generous support of Aboriginal and community causes, her numerous honours include her RCA designation from the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Alberta Centennial Medal, the 2006 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Arts and Culture, the University of Alberta Alumni Award of Excellence, and the City of Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame “Salute to Excellence.” In 2010 she was awarded the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award, along with an accomplished Alberta writer Robert Kroetch.
She continues to meet regularly with Elders from many Native communities to hear their stories and to learn from them. She travels often, allowing her to observe and partake in the rituals of various Native cultures. By doing so, she brings a very humanist approach to her work. She isn’t just trying to give information – rather her work is about sharing knowledge. Her visual presentation of First Nations has had a tremendous impact on Canadian art.
In all of her works she has been the storyteller, combining disparate idea and images to create works that express new ways of looking at the world. She continues that storytelling in this exciting body of new work, focusing on, but not limited to, some of the most iconic and influential people in both the historical and modern worlds. Each work tells a story, sometimes obvious, sometimes obscure, expressing her unique perception of her world and the issues, elements and people that define it What she is doing visually is to honour and continue the storytelling tradition of her ancestors. .
Cultural Memories and Imagined Futures: The Art of Jane Ash Poitras is a slim, visually stunning publication chronicling Poitras’s career, from her emergence as an artist in the late 1980s with sweatlodge etchings to her recognition as a major player in the visual arts scene, both in Canada and abroad. The book is part of the Art in Profile series printed by the University of Calgary Press.
The launch of her book coincides with Atchemowin (Cree for storyteller), an exhibition of her new works that opens Saturday, October 15 and runs until November 5, 2011.