Bonnie Devine spent the majority of her adult life working in the banking industry in Toronto.
“I tried to have a ‘normal life’, just putting my head down and trying to live in Toronto society,” she said.
But the rigors of the daily grind eventually got to her, and she decided an industry change to the arts was worth giving a shot.
“I was feeling very unhappy and unwell,” Devine said. “I quit that job and applied at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). I’ve never looked back or changed my mind about what I wanted to do since then.”
Since graduating from OCAD in 1997, Devine would hold a number of positions throughout the art community, including full-time instructor in 2008.
Born in Toronto but having maternal ties to the Serpent River First Nation in Northern Ontario, Devine said her passion for art was kicked off at age six when she received a set of artist pencil crayons.
“I still remember the way that box looked and the box was set up,” she said. “I was always very interested in working with my hands.”
Until many decades later, art was just a hobby that Devine pursued in her free time.
“We didn’t really have the resources to study that at school,” Devine said. “It didn’t seem possible.”
Devine’s childhood saw her travelling throughout Ontario wherever her parents could find work— Sarnia, Toronto, Elliot Lake and Serpent River—before her family eventually settled in Toronto when she was 11.
“We had a fairly tumultuous time as young kids, my brother and sister and myself. [Moving around to different schools] really shaped who I was, this sense of trying to figure out where I belonged,” she said.
“It sure wasn’t easy to be an Indigenous person in Toronto in those days,” Devine said. “It still isn’t.”
Despite having lived in Toronto for nearly six decades now, she still considers herself very attached to Serpent River First Nation where some of her family members reside.
“That was the place that I felt accepted and comfortable and safe,” she said. “It’s been a huge source of inspiration for me and strength.”
Over her artistic career, which includes sculpting, performing arts, painting and various installations, Devine has hosted a number of exhibitions around the globe, being featured in galleries in Canada, the United States, Europe and South America.
Her work often covers issues such as water and land management, including uranium mining in Ontario and the effects it has had on Indigenous communities.
“I’ve turned my attention to some of the conflicts that have occurred between various Indigenous leaders to hold onto the land or to try to safeguard a place where Indigenous life could go on,” Devine said.
A recent recognition of her work helped solidify further the feeling that Devine’s career change from banking to art was the right one.
Receiving an increasing number of spam calls, Devine had been mostly avoiding answering her phone. This past fall she heard her ringtone deliver what she figured was the latest in a string of duct cleaning services or counterfeit Canada Revenue Agency calls when she saw yet another unrecognizable number come across her call display.
“For some reason I decided to pick it up,” she said, which led to finding out she’d been named as a recipient of the 2021 Governor General’s Award for the Visual and Media Arts presented by the Canada Council of the Arts.
“I was bowled over, of course. I had trouble believing it was true,” she said. Sworn to secrecy until the official announcement, Devine said she still had her doubts as the days counted down to the announcement.
“I started to think after a couple of weeks, maybe it was a scam call. I had trouble believing it still.”
Devine admits she actually phoned up her nominators from the Peterborough Art Gallery — the only people she was allowed to tell about winning the award — just to confirm that she hadn’t been pranked in the whole process.
Having retired from her teaching job at OCAD in 2018, Devine has found herself occupying her time since last spring with a personal journal documenting various experiences with COVID-19, consisting of drawings and various forms of expression about her day-to-day life, as well as larger news events.
“I didn’t know much about the medical/scientific explanations about why a virus spread,” she said. “I thought I could understand the virus better if I could draw it and try to explain it to myself.”
“I feel very grateful that something inside me pointed me in the right direction,” Devine said of her arts career. “It’s been the best decision of my life. Art has given me everything that I have now. It felt like I found my true family, my true friends, the tribe I really belonged to.”
By Adam Laskaris, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com