Heather Shillinglaw is a mixed-media artist that uses art collage, beading and sewing to explain her familial oral histories and storytelling within her work. She is an Appetogasan, her ancestors were Newyhin/Cree, Dene/Chipewyan, Salteaux/Ojibwe & Scots/French. She was born in Daysland, Alberta and grew up near Cooking Lake, Alberta.
In 2009 Shillinglaw was invited to Argentina to present her work on how ‘plants are culture’. The Canadian Ambassador to Argentina further sponsored the opportunity to meet with local anthropologist Olga Rodrigez of Universidad Nacional de San Juan & Universidad Nacional de Cuyo and Shillinglaw toured villages and saw how traditional indigenous art practices used plants for sustainable art creation. Later that year, Shillinglaw worked with medicine woman Inocencia Rivera in the Amazon jungle in Paraguay. Rivera demonstrated how she protects the local people through plants, trees and natural medicines. Although their communication required translation, Shillinglaw says “while examining and talking about healing plants we both understood each other without the translations. I think it was because in our hearts we spoke from the same place, and that it felt like she was speaking to her Nohkom – (grandmother from long ago, great grandmother in Newyhin/Cree)”. It was after this experience that Heather began creating panels for Nohkoms Quilt. A later visit to the Budapest Environmental Exhibition in association with the Hungarian National Art Gallery in 2016 led to the development of her philosophy of Metis Ecological Arts Message (MEAM). Whether teaching or sharing her art, she carries the message of reducing our environmental footprint and using art and healing plants to heal others from within and to help remember what used to be commonly known.
Nohkoms quilt paintings are created through ongoing land-based learning. Shillinglaw’s mother, elder Shirley Norris Shillinglaw from the LeGoff Indian Reserve, is principal to this as well as other knowledge keepers/elders and the sweat lodge. Shillinglaw says “through sewing I imagine the seed beads are how the land connects me to the past and in wonder to preserve their memory. Art has a voice and lives on, activating the past present and future to preserve our culture and our land.” This series is also inspired from the traditional harvesting ground of the plants her mother remembers harvesting when she was young with her kookum – grandmother. This land (now lost to the Cold Lake First Nations) is now the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.
The Don’t Shoot my Star series looks to the natural world and the threats that imperil nature. Many of the plants depicted have natural healing properties, of great value to Shillinglaw’s ancestors and medicines that we need today. They are surrounded by a star like those found in a shooting range or a star quilt pattern. Don’t Shoot my Star references the pesticides and herbicides which threaten the natural world for future generations. It also is a nod to the star quilt pattern which is the highest honour gift for an elder. Furthermore, it celebrates some of the most beautiful plants that are stars all on their own. The measuring tapes are included as a reference to the artist’s grandmother and allude to measuring up to the ancestors.
Grandfather sun is part of the teachings that Shillinglaw had on the movement of the stars and moon and the kinship between them. It references both the movement of the earth around the sun as well as the measure of time as we look to the position of the sun as it moves across the sky in the day. As plants rely on and thrive on the sun, we are reminded of the important role that Grandfather sun has for our healing plants.
In my pocket series focuses on a satchel bag that carried all the medicines that Shillinglaw’s kookum carried. Her medicine cabinet was always growing as she harvested and kept her healing plants handy in her pocket.