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The power of creating

Artists Leanna and Jean Marshall have created a space for grief and celebration in a new exhibit at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.

Twin sisters from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation have come together to create a space for grief and celebration.

Piitwewetam: Making is Medicine, on display until May 2, 2021, is the newest creation from the Gustafson family, curated by twin sisters Jean and Leanna Marshall.

In 2015, the Gustafson’s suffered a loss unlike any other when their son and brother, Piitwewetam (Rolling Thunder), was taken from them in a car crash. Grief took hold of their lives and as this family journeyed into a new understanding of creating through that grief, what came of it is a new commemorative show now being displayed at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.

Creating through grief

Jean and Leanna Marshall knew the Gustafson family from many years back and were approached to curate this show when it was decided to be presented to the community.

“[The Gustafson’s] have gifted us with a way of trusting in spirit and the strength of ceremony,” says Leanna Marshall.

This exhibition is not only created in a space to be admired but to also better understand how a person and a community can celebrate life while grieving that loss.

“The hard thing about talking about this type of work is there’s so much more in it than just the aesthetic quality of it. The skill and the craftmanship is one thing but it’s the energy of the story and the thought process. It’s all the in-between that goes into the work that makes this commemorative exhibition what it is,” says Jean Marshall.

A family’s shared story

While Jean and Leanna Marshall have gained a deeper connection to each other and the Gustafson’s throughout this process, they hope this understanding and connection is felt within the viewer.

Jean discusses a series of skirts Shannon Gustafson, artist and mother of Piitwewetam (Rolling Thunder) made that represents the moon phases and how each skirt has a note written to her son.

“Every time I read those letters I cry. I’m feeling her. I’m feeling connected to her. And that is the work of artists is to make those actual connections with people. I think when people come in who don’t even know [the Gustafson’s] they’re going to feel the same way. We’re all human.”

Both agree that this show represents the Anishnaabe way of being and they’ve created a space for everyone to understand how Anishnaabe grieve and create through spirituality, resilience and love.

Throughout the daily process of curating this exhibit, Leanna says an important part of the process was putting out their offerings every day and sending intentions that everyone was taken care of.

“We’ve been putting these intentions out in a form of prayer in our offerings, and I feel like that always helps to ground the energy of how things actually flow.”

Connecting with strength

While both sister's curatorial experience is just beginning, their artistic work is an experience known throughout the community.

Leanna, writer and maker of jingle dresses and skirts, concentrated on the creation of the exhibition catalogue while Jean, a bead worker, lead the way with working with the materials in the gallery.

With these two strengths, the sisters are a dynamic pair for a commemorative show about grief and coping in a healthy way.

“We’re a really strong, tight unit and we’re both aware of the other’s strengths as well as when to back off when the other person needs space. It’s just an intuitive thing. What makes us work so well as a team lies in our deep level of trust we have for each other. We trust each other so much,” Jean says when discussing their relationship throughout the curatorial experience.

Understanding grief

While many have been coping with unexpected loss and grief this past year, the Gustafson family reminds us about the celebrations of life, and the Marshall sisters have solidified that celebratory beauty through this exhibit.

“People will respond differently because we each carry grief in our own ways and that’s been interesting to observe in our community members, but at the end of the day this is really about the family teaching us a different way of grieving and I’m just so thankful for that. What a beautiful gift,” says Leanna.

Piitwewetam represents one family’s relationship with loss, and Jean and Leanna Marshall hope everyone can create their own relationship when experiencing this exhibit.

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