Michael Barber describes his art installation on display at the Lynnwood Arts Centre in Simcoe as “airy but heavy.”
Large wooden birds and the silhouette of a child fly across the top of the floor-to-ceiling creation.
Look down and the heaviness sets in.
Beneath the group in flight are two weathered wooden doors with graffiti scratched deep into the wood and large chunks cut out. Shadowy painted figures are slumped forward, their heads hanging down in a picture of grief.
The installation, called “A Silent Sky,” was inspired by a trip to the Mohawk Institute and Barber’s personal history as the grandson of a survivor of the Brantford residential school, known among students as the “Mush Hole.”
He sees the birds as messengers telling parents what happened to their stolen children, who were taken to residential schools and never heard from again.
The figures on the door represent “the devastation it had on these families,” Barber said. “I wanted to create images that visually weighed heavy.”
In speaking with Mohawk Institute survivor Geronimo Henry, Barber began to understand how events in his own life — most notably his father’s death by suicide — were connected to his grandmother’s experience in the Mush Hole, which she never talked about with her grandchildren.
“That’s actually why I started to paint, because I was having a tough time dealing with it,” Barber said. “Creating kept my mind busy, and I started to tell stories and dreams in my work.”
His wooden canvases are marked by cuts and gouges — a visual representation, Barber said, of the generational trauma of residential schools.
“I want the paintings to look like they survived something,” he explained.
For his installation at Lynnwood, Barber collaborated with other artists — dozens of them, in fact.
He was one of five Indigenous artists — along with Tristyn Day, Julie Mallon, Nikki Shawana and Michael Green — whose artwork is featured in the current exhibit, called “Rebuild, Restore, Renew Together,” which is on until July 23.
Last month, each artist led five workshops for more than 650 local students from kindergarten to Grade 12, imparting art lessons and “giving their wisdom and knowledge,” said Chris Raitt, the arts consultant for the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board.
During a visit to the arts centre late last year, Raitt was inspired to fill the empty upper gallery with Indigenous art and involve local Catholic students in the creative process.
Students made dreamcatchers, learned how to hoop dance and painted animals representing the core values of the Seven Grandfather Teachings.
“That was super powerful,” Raitt said. “I was amazed how much the kids knew ahead of time. They knew about residential schools and how kids were treated.”
Barber told students the personal story behind his artwork.
“We talked about how art helps us heal,” he said.
Then the students got to work painting and sanding the birds, with the older kids using Barber’s tools to mark up the doors. For inspiration, Barber showed them photos of the brickwork at the Mohawk Institute where former students had carved their names and pleas for help.
At Lynnwood, students carved names, little hearts, stars and other symbols into the doors before Barber painted the figures.
“Everyone got involved and everybody was really hands on and willing to do it,” said Kylie Varga, 13, who just completed Grade 7 at St. Joseph’s elementary school in Simcoe.
Varga, an artist herself, found Barber’s creative process intriguing.
“It felt a little weird, because you had to scratch the wood and destroy it to make art,” she said.
Hearing the story behind Barber’s artwork “makes it more meaningful,” said Varga, who came to appreciate how viewers could have different interpretations of the marks she and her classmates made.
“If one person looks at it, it looks like a crack in the door. But if another person looks at it, it might be like a war, and people had to evacuate so people were banging on doors,” she said.
Students will have more opportunities to work with visiting artists in the fall, said Lynnwood director Kim Shippey. Five new Indigenous artists will lead student workshops in September and October ahead of another reconciliation-themed exhibit in November.
“(The students) became really invested in it and became a part of the installation,” Shippey said. “Not too often does something like that happen.”
The exhibit name — “Rebuild, Restore, Renew Together” — has a double meaning, as the arts centre itself reopened in June under new management after being closed for more than two years.
“The opening of this exhibit was just jammed with people who care about the arts,” Shippey said of an event that drew almost 150 people to the national historic site in downtown Simcoe, a stately mid-19th century mansion that was reborn as an arts centre in 1974.
“To hear all the excitement was just terrific,” Shippey said. “It is so incredible to have this building open once again.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator