Her Teacher Wanted Her to Pursue an Office Career. She Decided to Follow Her Artistic Dreams Instead

Being of Malecite and Micmac descent, nature has always been painter Lise-Marielle Fortin's muse.

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Coucher de Soleil/Sunset
Courtesy of Lise-Marielle Fortin

An early life of hardship

I am happy to share with you my humble story and the pleasure I get from painting. I was born in 1952 in Matane in Gaspésia (Gaspésie). My childhood was steeped in the smell of kelp, the sight of wonderful seascapes and the fury of eastern winter storms. I was one of nine children, three brothers and five sisters, raised in poverty during very hard times. We lived in a small house. The boys slept in one bed and the girls in another. Nights were spent elbowing and kicking each other for space.

My mother’s ancestry was Malecite and my father’s was Micmac. My father started working at lumber camps at the age of 10 and suffered abuse from the men. He eventually became an alcoholic, spending most of his hard-earned money on alcohol. Despite his past, he managed to marry and raise a family. He worked hard and became a skilled carpenter. Unable to afford a rifle, he snared wild hares for our meals. He taught me how to skin the hares and tan their hides in the sun. He also taught me how to prepare and cook porcupine stew. Most importantly, he taught me to find peace and contentment in a world that is at times difficult and cruel. He was always so gentle and loving towards me.

We were malnourished and our teeth would fall out from scurvy. We often prayed for my brother to catch a fish at the river so we could fill our tummies for one more day. My mother suffered from bouts of depression, often discouraged because of the lack of income needed to feed and dress us. Being the black sheep of the family, I bore the brunt of mother’s anger when the task of disciplining a house full of children became too difficult. I remember seeing her in desperation cutting up my late grandfather’s coat and using the material to design clothes for us. She would hem strips of rabbit skin and fur into them. I have mixed feelings about my mom, but I love her very much, and sometimes can’t help but admire her determination and strength in the face of such adversity.

Don’t miss the work of Indigenous artist Richard Hunt.

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Le Retour au Camp/The Return to Camp
Courtesy of Lise-Marielle Fortin

Nature is my muse

Both my mother and the teacher from the one-room school house I attended discouraged me from pursuing my love of art. They suggested I become a secretary or, at least, choose a career that would give me a proper income. I took their advice and pursued studies in administration, human sciences and office automation. But I never used that training. The only artistic training I received was an art class at the “cégep” level (pre-university). My teacher there said I had talent. Lacking self-confidence, I directed my creativity towards creating jewelry and other ritual objects of Indian clothing. Since the age of 20, art has been my only livelihood!

Being of native-American descent, nature is my muse. Self-taught, I paint skies, I paint the colour of time, and I paint the nature of the natural world before my eyes. The blood flowing through my veins carries the wisdom of the Malecite and Micmac.

I mainly use acrylics, but I also work with ink, watercolour, tapestry, jewelry, clothing, Indian handicrafts (e.g. ritual objects and jewelry.) Today, after 35 years, I devote myself essentially to painting.

I try to render, with the help of my brush, what I see and what I remember of the light, the mood, or the details of natural scenery around me. Nature is, for me, an inexhaustible source of inspiration: the sea, the forest, the flowers—all stir my emotions. From the greatest heat to the deepest cold, from sand dunes to oceanic horizons, from the smallest clover to the sequoia, natural beauty makes me vibrate.

Meet the ethnobotanist working with First Nations elders to preserve Canada’s plants.

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Offrande au Grande Espirit/Offering to the Great Spirit
Courtesy of Lise-Marielle Fortin

A prayer for my father

In 2000, I received an acrylic painting kit for Christmas. I produced some paintings and received an offer to exhibit my works at Gallery Tella in Quebec. Unfortunately, the mother of the owner died and the gallery was closed. I continued to paint, however, and have exhibited in several galleries throughout the province.

In 2012, Ray Belcourt, an artist from Alberta, contacted me in regards to a mixed media art project. I was chosen among artists from across Canada to represent my province. I would mesh my painting style and medium with landscape photography from my province on a large canvas. The project included a published book titled Artscapes/Pays-arts Canada and a gala exhibition in Edmonton.

When Ray arrived at my home in Quebec to meet me and take the photos, he assumed I would guide him to the Laurentian Mountains to capture the beauty of the fall colours. He was disappointed when I told him the spot I chose for the photography was in the park across the street from my apartment. I love that area. Often I sit among the tall cedar trees and drum for my father. I took my drum and my native leather coat and led Ray to Le Parc des Moulins. He was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the river and the waterfall only a few metres from my residence. He asked me to pray to my father at the falls in my usual manner, paying no attention to him and his equipment. His black-and-white photo of me praying at the edge of the waterfall was transferred to a large canvas. I painted parts of the photo over the black and white, completing a beautiful piece of art.

After an unfortunate scamming incident in 2015, I no longer exhibit in galleries. Now I sell my works by word of mouth and to friends and family from my home.

Next, find out how Buffy Sainte-Marie is changing Canada for the better.

Originally Published in Our Canada

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