Strathcona County’s archives have been enhanced by the work of a talented artist-in-residence

The Strathcona County Museum and Archives (Strathma) is home to a wide collection of historical photographs, maps and documents. But, more than that, Strathma also stewards the stories of the people and land where the archives are situated.

“What we try to do is capture as many stories that are as dynamic and interesting and colourful as our county’s history,” says Education and Engagement Coordinator Lauren Comba, adding that the museum places particular importance on sharing the experiences of groups whose stories may have not yet been heard.

“We want to shine light not only on the well-documented, agricultural settlement history that laid the roots of the community, but also on the narratives that have long been overshadowed here.”

One of the ways Strathma is working to share those narratives is through its artist-in-residence program. For 10 days in late 2023, and thanks to support from Edmonton Community Foundation, Strathma hosted its inaugural  artist-in-residence, Indigenous mixed-media artist Heather Shillinglaw, for a series of workshops, artist talks and educational sessions.

“Having someone like Heather come in and bring life to the archives, to bridge that historical context, the oral traditions and history, it all culminated to something really wonderful,” says Comba.

“It built on so many aspects of what we’re trying to do here on a day-to-day basis.”

As a resident of the area who had grown up just outside of Sherwood Park near Cooking Lake, Shillinglaw was particularly excited to take part in the Strathma residency program. It was a chance to display her artwork, ᑮᓯᑌᐳᐃᐧᐣ ᓵᑳᐦᐃᑲᐣ (kîsitêpowin sâkâhikan), which provides a bird’s-eye view of the changes in Cooking Lake’s landscape over the years.

“This project came up through a conversation with my mom where we were talking about harvesting sites, and thinking about matrilineal landscapes that are important to our family. And Cooking Lake has a long history with our Indigenous ancestry,” Shillinglaw explains.

A mixed-media piece, kîsitêpowin sâkâhikan combines a collection of Alberta Archives’ images and historical aerial photos from the 1920s, with oral histories passed down from Shillinglaw’s family, as well as visits to the area
as it exists today. The piece bridges the past and present, and as Shillinglaw explains, provides a starting point for bigger conversations about traditions, culture and ecology.

“It was a very engaging way to connect with the community, because I lived there, so I know that landscape. We can talk about the water level, we can talk about the land. What is happening to the land from a historical  perspective,” she says.

“For instance, a lot of people were saying the water levels are so incredibly low, it’s scary. So let’s talk about that. What can we do? What we can do as a community is talk about preservation. So that’s where the education comes in.”

As part of the residency, Shillinglaw hosted interactive workshops, where members of the public could learn about her techniques and try their hand at some as well. She also included talks with Elders, including her mother, Shirley Norris Shillinglaw, from the Cold Lake First Nation, and Ann Cardinal from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation.

“It was a number of aspects — cultural sharing, Elder teaching, even looking at the ecology and biology of the land. Whatever I learned, I built upon and shared,” she says.

Today, kîsitêpowin sâkâhikan remains on display in Strathma, as Shillinglaw donated the piece after the residency. It stands as a powerful reminder of the area’s roots, and of the many generations of people who lived on the land well before it was even known as Strathcona County.

“Having Heather give a voice to those pieces of nature, like the lake, like the footsteps of the past, the trails, and relays that all back to her teachings, especially from her mother, is just so meaningful,” says Comba.