Tracey-Mae Chambers is a Métis installation artist and a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario. She travels throughout Canada and the USA creating art installations as part of her Hope and Healing Canada project.
How it Began
Tracey-Mae started painting as a child and soon realized she didn’t like painting. This led her to discover a love of sculpting. She worked as a sculptor for many years before moving into fibre work.
“The change of direction was solely based on what happened in Kamloops,” says Tracey-Mae. “The focus of this project is the subject of decolonization.”
This was the discovery of remains of Indigenous children at a former Kamloops school in May 2021.
“I think if you are going to talk about residential schools and graveyards, you can't express that in sculpture that's going to be understandable or non-confrontational,” she says. “It's difficult to represent in a non-violent way. But in a material like fibre, I can make something that starts a conversation without being confrontational.”
The installations are created from approximately 30 percent knitting, 30 percent weaving and 40 percent crochet made into webs. The complicated geometric designs represent the complicated de-structuring of colonization. The red yarn represents love, courage and passion but also hate and anger. Secondly, because red is associated with a racial slur.
“The meaning of the installations is about connection yet we are all separate, individual strings. So, if you take any of those strings out, what happens? It starts to weaken, and the more strings you take out, the weaker it gets. We can figure it out in fabric, but we can't seem to figure it out in our families, our communities or our countries.”
The Creative Process
Each installation is unique and site-specific; they are indicative or tell a story for that specific place. It starts with choosing a location.
“I choose a site and then each venue sends me up to 15 or 20 photographs of different places where I could potentially construct something.”
Tracey-Mae then takes the photographs and starts work in her studio. The time spent in her studio can be as long as a couple of months. Then it's taken to the location, and the piece can take a few hours to a week to install on-site. But plans can change.
“Although I may have chosen a specific place, if it's pelting down rain or a massive snowstorm, I have to change. It starts with the photographs, and I build site-specific based on that. And then I have to go with the flow when I get to the place. But there is always angst or a little bit of tension. It's good because I think it pushes me a little bit further. I like problem-solving. Tension physically but also metaphorically. The tension of the thread in my work. I'm always trying to make something better than the last one,” says Tracey-Mae.
Once dismantled, the yarn is repurposed at another site.
“I will take the pieces apart and reconstruct them into a new installation at a separate place. Each installation is different, but the stories travel with the yarn. Secondly, the materials are recycled making it sustainable.”
Installations are created both inside and outside and they weather the elements quite successfully but being outside presents more challenges. “The most challenging installation I’ve had was in Ontario when it was minus 23 degrees. I had to keep walking to my truck to warm up. I’d turn on the seat warmer and sit on my hands. It was so cold. I had to keep stopping because I can't wear gloves. I cut off the ends of my mittens.”
The importance of decolonization
The focus of this project is decolonization.
“I think the most important thing is the need to decolonize events such as art fairs, which tend to be filled with artists from a settler population. Decolonizing basic spaces and addressing that there is more than one story. It doesn't end at a museum. A place where colonization is pretty strong. That's my main focus. How can we change the narrative so that everyone's story is represented? What can we do for the betterment of everyone and not just Indigenous stories? It means everybody's story,” says Tracey-Mae.
Privilege is a problem in the art world and encompasses all areas such as education, materials, who’s represented, who are able to exhibit and also those who can afford to purchase.
“Most artists have to make do with what they have. And yet people wonder why there's graffiti. There's graffiti because it's something that is accessible to everybody. A true form of art.”
She talked about Norval Morrisseau as an example of someone who was not a privileged individual.
“He made his own paints out of nothing because he had no money to buy paints. At the time he was ridiculed, but now we understand the magnitude of his work. He is one of the greatest Indigenous painters ever.”