At 23 years old, Shelby Gagnon is taking the Thunder Bay art scene by storm. An emerging, community engaged and multidisciplinary artist, she has created works to make a viewer halt, confounded, in their light.
Gagnon is Anishinabe, Mushkego Cree and Metis. Born in Winnipeg, she moved to Aroland First Nations before stepping foot in Thunder Bay at the age of seven. At first, living here was a challenge.
Gagnon remembers having a strong accent and being pushed away from that to fit into the white community.
“I grew up very colonized… in a home of ‘proper’ speech.”
She uses this colonization as a way to explore her culture and spirituality.
Through her art, Gagnon explores not only her solo identity but the identity of the land we live on. A land that isn’t ours.
Always searching, always learning
At Lakehead University, Gagnon started recognizing and embracing her Indigenous identity.
“A very important journey in my life was going to art school.”
While attending the visual arts program, she saw all the opportunities available for Indigenous artists through Lakehead; a high demand.
“There are so many talented youths [in Thunder Bay] with the potential to be professional artists.” Gagnon says, “The Indigenous community is huge and there’s a lot of amazing artists.
Looking at her own community in Thunder Bay and seeing the support that comes with the amazing opportunities for her here, she believes there’s always more to be done.
Using art as a stepping-stone, she’s advocating for youth. She believes their involvement in identifying the culture and land is what makes the Indigenous community flourish.
Moving through identity
Even though she finds it hard not being with people and participating in ceremonies during this time of COVID-19, Gagnon thinks there’s something special about watching the community come together; watching connections form.
“Even with life moving online, there’s still that factor of ceremony,” she says.
Volunteering and becoming a leader in the community, Gagnon says yes as much as she can to lend a hand. This participation and leadership began at the Neechee studio, an organization that holds free art workshops for youth, in 2017.
“Getting involved in the community and organization was where I started to discover myself and what my purpose is.”
Art has been the leading factor for Gagnon as she learns different ways and methods of bringing the traditional parts of her identity, her culture, into her work.
Along with Neechee Studio Gagnon is also working with organizations such as, Definitely Superior Art Gallery, Indigenous Food Circle, Northern Lights Collaborative, Canadian Roots Exchange, Roots to Harvest and Northern Ontario’s Women’s Center.
Painting away from the past
Colonization of Indigenous culture is a topic feared to be explored. Gagnon is pressing against that and showcasing the systemic racism and pushback she feels within the community.
She says growing up, and even today, she’s mistaken for being white; not Indigenous enough. On the other side of the spectrum, her sister experienced racism growing up being darker. Both sides experience a type of separation due to differences in their skin color, something that is all too common in our Northern community. Speaking this truth, Gagnon uses the relationship to as a way to educate through her art, putting huge importance on her spirituality and culture; her identity.
Gagnon is trying to live between this balance of discovery. Using her artistic creations as an outlet, she is learning the deeper side of her culture and the land. She also says she is unlearning certain things she was believed to think.
Systemic racism is no shock to anyone of the Indigenous community of Thunder Bay. The stigma they, and their ancestors, have faced is an ongoing issue. Gagnon uses this as a way to educate through her art, putting huge importance on her spirituality and culture; her identity.
Thunder Bay springs forward
Through the organizations Gagnon has her hand in, it’s hard not to see the impact the Indigenous community has on the overall wellbeing of Thunder Bay. Not only with art and spoken word, but through community and gratitude.
In the future, Gagnon believes she’ll always find her way back to Thunder Bay.
“It’s where my ancestors are from. It’s home.”
We’ve all stepped foot on Gagnon’s ancestors land and call Thunder Bay our home. The Indigenous community know that more than anyone. Emerging artists like Gagnon, a land and water protector, paint this picture.