Tom Chapman was busy Monday at the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, visiting artists in their studios, gathering and sharing information.
It’s Chapman’s mission behind his new Queen Street gallery, Upper Canada Native Art, to bridge the gap between artists and collectors through his stunning new space.
Stepping inside the gallery at the corner of Victoria Street is like encountering a feast for the senses. The gentle scent of incense fills the air, while calming Indigenous music greets the visitor. Eyes are drawn toward expert sculptures displayed on pedestals and behind softly-lit glass cases. Indigenous prints and originals decorate the walls above intricate metal works and hand-made dream catchers from Southern Ontario’s Haudenosaunee artists and craftspeople.
A 20-year veteran of the arts sector in the NorthWest Territories and Nunavut, Chapman brings with him a wealth of experience, as well as connections with more than 40 Indigenous artists from all corners of Canada to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“What we’re trying to do is to demonstrate the beauty and ability of the Indigenous cultures throughout Canada,” Chapman says. “This gives us the opportunity to demonstrate that what is being made is beautiful, and to bring it to the world.”
Besides the incredible collection of art at the gallery, Upper Canada also sells an assortment of giftware, including red cedar bent wood boxes, silverware, ceramics and jewellery. All are sourced with authenticity and support in mind. You won’t find mass produced, mainstream products imported from overseas here.
“For instance, our SheNative Elk skin leather handbags,” Chapman explains, “are a line owned by a group of Indigenous women from Saskatchewan. We’re the first retailer to offer them for sale in Ontario. Our soaps and candle lines are from Akwesasne in Quebec. The metal works come from Anvil Island, incorporating a west coast Salish design. It’s about lending support where we can help. It’s very mutually beneficial.“
When he is not out visiting artists, Chapman, a Metis by birth, has been spending every day at the store. Stocking the gallery took plenty of time early on, and he does a fair bit of online sales out of the new location.
On the day The Local visited, his excitement was contagious as he unpacked a shipment from Derrald Taylor, an Inuvialuit carver and jeweller originally from Tuktoyaktuk. The package arrived as the interview was in progress, and Chapman couldn’t wait to get the box open.
Under layers of insulation and bubble wrap, Chapman unveils a beautiful sculpture of a polar bear, with inlays for the eyes and nose. It’s his first time seeing the piece of art.
“I had a snippet of what it is,” he tells The Local, “but, oh, that’s a beautiful job. It’s alabaster. It was supposed to be done five months ago. But this particular block of stone was frozen into the permafrost, and they had to wait for months to get it out. It’s exciting to see it.”
He explains the trials and tribulations another northern artist, sculptor Etidloie Adla, would have gone through to even begin working on his dancing bear sculpture.
“Before he could even consider, in his home of Cape Dorset, to carve that, he had to leave home for several days,” explains Chapman. “He would go out to the deposit of serpentine, in minus 40 or minus 60 degree weather, harvest the stone himself, get it on the back of his sled or snowmobile, or onto an aluminum boat, and get it back to his community to begin to carve.”
The artists from Six Nations, such as Todd Longboat, Eric Silver and Cyril Henry, he says, usually work in steatite, most of which is imported into Canada from North Carolina, as well as local materials, such as antler.
In the gallery, original paintings by Algonquin artist Frank Polson bring to mind the well-known woodland style of Norval Morrisseau. Chapman is also excited about the recent addition of the work of another Algonquin artist, Kim Height, who lives in Pelham. Two of her paintings recently sold at the gallery.
Since opening the doors in March, Chapman is pleased with its reception in town.
“We’re beyond pleasantly surprised,” he raves. “In March when we were open, the activity and the support we saw far exceeded all expectations, especially for that time of year. At that time, it was a lot of people from outside of Niagara, but it was the comments and the positive responses that blew us away.”
“The last eight days that we’ve been open,” he goes on, “that’s continued. It’s more on an even keel, no line-ups at the door. The real silver lining is we’ve gotten to meet a lot of locals. The positive feedback with what they’re seeing, and they’re bringing friends back. That’s key to us, that the local folks really appreciate what they’re seeing when they come into the place.”
Chapman doesn’t approach visitors with a hard sell. He prefers to let people roam and to answer questions as they arise. He says he gets as many queries from visitors about the $50 dream catchers, each one different from the other, as he does for the $10,000 sculptures on display.
“Things here are touching people emotionally,” he tells The Local. “People have to gravitate toward something, and we’ll provide whatever information we can once they have attached themselves to something.”
Chapman has gathered a group of three employees at Upper Canada, all with a like-minded interest in native art. One of his new charges worked at the location’s previous incarnation offering period photography to tourists. Another employee is a retired pilot who spent most of his career flying in the northern regions of the country, experiencing what life is like for many of the artists whose work is featured at Upper Canada.
Chapman looks forward to the loosening of COVID restrictions, when his gallery can become an even more visible focal point for Indigenous art.
“We’re planning to have artists on site every weekend,” he promises. “We’ll start outside, but we’ve left a space here, where they can come in and paint. It will open the door for these folks (the artists) to sell directly as well.”
The member of the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre would like to see a bigger emphasis on art in NOTL. He welcomes more galleries along Queen Street and says he is working with the Pumphouse on future initiatives, such as an “art walk” in town.
In the long run, he’s hoping that he can continue to provide that bridge between artist and collector, encouraging Indigenous artists to continue spreading their culture through their creations.
“The last year-and-a-half has caused a lot of artists to step away from their trade,” he laments. “I’m spending as much of my time right now trying to attract those folks back, to create a little bit more of the excitement that used to be there. Inviting them to get back into the fold, and letting them know that we’re willing to work with them.”
Upper Canada Native Art is located at 109 Queen Street, at the corner of Victoria Street.