Lauren Crazybull is a Niitsítapi, Dené artist whose powerful portraits challenge colonial representations of First Nations People. Her work has been recognized with several prestigious awards including the 2020 Eldon and Anne Foote Visual Arts Prize.
When Lauren Crazybull was nominated for the Eldon and Anne Foote Visual Arts Prize for her show, The Future All At Once, held at McMullen Gallery in 2019, she was barely in her mid-twenties and as a self-taught artist came onto the Alberta art scene like a shooting star.
Crazybull dabbled in art throughout her youth and later held a few small shows in a record shop in Lethbridge, but her four-year stint in radio broadcasting kept her too busy to pursue art full time. It was only when she moved to Edmonton to take on a job as an art coordinator at iHuman that she began to consider painting as a career. “I am going to try to make this happen,” she said. “I know I want to be an artist.” Just then a life-changing opportunity came up: Crazybull became the first recipient of an artist residency launched at McLuhan House. “It gave me time and space to create something more serious,” she said, and she proceeded to push the scope and scale of her work to new heights.
The resulting larger-than-life portraits emanate a commanding presence but consist of ordinary people – mostly young Indigenous artists and musicians Crazybull met through her social media networks. “I felt that there wasn’t a whole lot of representation of contemporary Indigenous people just being themselves, not necessarily performing a settler understanding of Indigeneity. I want to humanize all Indigenous people and show that there isn’t just one way to be Indigenous,” she says. “I wanted to humanize regular Indigenous people.”
It was exactly such peers and role models Crazybull lacked during her 16 years in the child welfare system. Despite frequent moves throughout rural Alberta, she met few Indigenous classmates. At the same time, her books were filled with generic and often nameless Native people: either mythical stereotypes or those struggling. “For me growing up without any actual Native people in my life those were the only two representations I could see,” she says. It was ordinary people, like herself, that deserved space on gallery walls.
Her intensely intimate portraits are always titled with the name of the sitter, but Power & Vulnerability is an exception. In this work, Crazybull’s model and friend Elijah Cardinal-Whitford reverses centuries of colonial depictions by shifting his direct, interrogating gaze at the viewer. He shimmers with vibrant colour. Red and green highlights on each side of his face juxtapose power with vulnerability, and implicitly pose a question: “How can you find power in vulnerability?” asks Crazybull.
Residential school survivors, who had the courage to tell their story, provide one answer and source of inspiration for Crazybull. But her own paintings also take control of the truth: “With a lot of my work, where I talk about my upbringing, I open up about these things in order to try and share that knowledge and those experiences. I am doing that to show how much resiliency there is in Indigenous communities,” she says. “When people tell the truth they take power back in some way.”
Considering the significance of Crazybull’s message and quality of her work, it’s not surprising that recognition came with lightning speed. Her accomplishments include becoming Alberta’s first Artist in Residence and winning the 2020 Eldon & Anne Foote Visual Arts prize. These awards allowed Crazybull to work throughout the pandemic, complete enough work to present qualifications equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, and be accepted into the master’s program at Emily Carr University of Art + Design this fall. “I am so grateful to the Edmonton arts community,” she says. “I really feel like that environment helped me to do well.”
For the past 10 years the Eldon + Anne Foote Edmonton Visual Arts Prize has recognized outstanding artists from the Capital region. To celebrate, the Art Gallery of St. Albert is hosting the first ever exhibition in association with this award. In Good Company features award winners Preston Pavlis, Lauren Crazybull, aAron Munson and Gillian Willans, alongside the artists from the 2021 short list, including Emmanuel Osahor, Sharon Rose Kootenay and Jason Symington. Work by these seven incredible artists hang side by side, connected by their shared experience with the award, while offering a glimpse into their individual practices.
In Good Company runs November 9, 2021, to February 5, 2022. Plan your visit here.