I didn’t intend to be political. But somebody has to be the troublemaker
Jane Ash Poitras was born in Fort Chipewyan Alberta in 1951. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Poitras was six and she was adopted by an elderly German woman. She grew up in Edmonton, Alberta in a Catholic household. Before turning to a career in the arts, she obtained a B.Sc. in microbiology at the University of Alberta. She later obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from the University of Alberta and a Master's from Columbia University.
Internationally acclaimed Canadian artist Jane Ash Poitras says her works “are all about serendipity. Being in the right place at the wrong time. Or the wrong place at the right time, making those connections and creating a piece of art about it.”
Poitras began making seemingly contradictory connections as a young adult. Following a Roman Catholic upbringing in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, she began exploring her Cree heritage. She earned a degree in microbiology, then studied art at Columbia University where she was influenced by the work of American artists Mark Rothko, Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. She developed her own unique practice of layering images, text, textures and found objects into diverse narratives in her painting and printmaking. Her work continues to be deeply political, spiritual, scientific and outspoken.
NGC Magazine: You said that you feel Prayer Ties My People, one of your works in the Gallery’s collection, is misnamed. Why?
Jane Ash Poitras: This piece is about the little bundles of cloth that we spend hours making for a ceremony. We put the tobacco in each one, then we tie them to our Sun Dance poles for when we do our Sun Dance ceremony. Those prayers are offered up to the Great Spirit of whatever religion you are. It should be called "Prayer Ties for Everyone" because everyone needs prayer ties. Even the politicians. Who else is going to tell them what to do if not the artists? We have been influencing politicians for time immemorial.
NGC Magazine: You cite the influence of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. How did they influence your technique and practice?
Jane Ash Poitras: I like Twombly’s scribbles and messages. Same with Rauschenberg. He writes on his work and he was inspired by his mother who was a seamstress. That’s why he has patchwork on his work, collaging it and patching it. These artists were transformers. They put pieces together that others said shouldn’t go together. But they said to hell with it, let’s see what comes out of this. What usually came out of it was a big statement because of their genius and their intuitiveness and intelligence. They were saying: "Wake up world. We need to talk about climate change. We need to talk about the opiate crisis."
NGC Magazine: Your work reflects a powerful combination of the spiritual and the political.
Jane Ash Poitras: I have done that all my life and that is how I got respect. I am fearless. I’m a law-abiding, Catholic person, but I don’t mind telling people off, the ones who deserve to be told off. But they know when they deserve it and I embrace them with love and spiritually heal them. I believe art can be spiritually healing.
~ National Gallery of Canada