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Local artist expresses trauma through art

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An display at the Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre is showcasing local creations through an initiative to promote area artists.

Cassandra Cochrane is the artist behind this month's exhibit.

Originally from Rainy River First Nations, Cochrane currently is pursuing a fine arts degree at the University of Manitoba.

She said it “was kind of always the plan” to take fine arts before enrolling in an education program.

But “life happened" and after a few jobs, along with attending Grant McEwan University in Edmonton for a year-and-a-half before moving back home, Cochrane now is working towards her dream to "be the next Mr. Johnston.”

“When I was in high school . . . I did my placement, that co-op that you do in high school, with Mr. [Owen] Johnston in the art class teaching Grade 9s and I loved it,” Cochrane recalled.

She added high school was difficult for her, though not because of her grades or abilities. Rather, it was the “extra stuff"—growing up in a small town, "especially when you're native in a mostly white area.”

Johnston is an art teacher at Fort Frances High School, and someone who helped and inspired Cochrane throughout her time there.

“He was just always one of those people that made me want to go to school," she remarked. ”I'd like to be that person for other people, and specifically aboriginal kids.

“So many of them start school and don't end up finishing it, and that could've easily been me at the time.”

Art always has been an interest of Cochrane's. Her mother taught her to sew at a young age, making bags and skirts, and she remembers helping her grandma make the family's jingle dresses.

She said it became an outlet for her as she got older.

“I always remember making things and not just drawing," Cochrane noted. ”Always just liked building things and making things with my hands or figuring out how to do things.

"Seeing something and then figuring out how I can do it without instructions.

“I like to see things and try to figure it out,” she added.

A few of her past projects are on display at the local library, including a skirt she made for her aboriginal arts history class earlier this year.

Her teacher, Leah Fontaine, created a medicine wheel-inspired model called the “Spirit Mender Model.”

According to a thesis written by Fontaine, the “Spirit Mender Model” is based on historical trauma that affects the lives of aboriginal peoples in Canada.

It argues “that aboriginal art has the potential to contribute to recovery from trauma on an individual and a communal level, but that its continued analysis through the western gaze may take away from this restorative impact.”

The research aims to explore “how historical trauma theory and the aboriginal ethos can be viewed together to create a new hybridized lens through which to interpret aboriginal art.”

Cochrane explained most things in aboriginal culture are cyclical—when something happens, there are stages to pass through that end up feeding back to the start.

The model, much like the medicine wheel, starts in the east and works clockwise to the north, which is the ending point or “elder stage” of the cycle.

She added many things work in this same model, such as the seasons and life itself.

“Once you reach a certain age, new life comes out of that,” Cochrane said.

The “Spirit Mender Model” begins in the east with the trauma and moves around the circle to learning about the trauma in the south, educating and working through the trauma in the west, then through to the north—or ending point, which is acknowledging and recognizing the trauma while also working through it and becoming resilient.

The skirt Cochrane created is based on this model and she is the subject matter within it, addressing her own trauma as a child.

“I'm placed in the centre of that," she explained. "A skirt is encompassing so it's the perfect thing to use as myself in the middle because I'm physically in the middle of that skirt.”

The skirt is designed with 12 women around the bottom of it—all representing different stages in her life.

Hypothetically, Cochrane would be wearing the skirt, facing north, and the skirt would replicate the traditional medicine wheel through the colours used in the women's outfits.

“All the girls on it that are within those four corners, they're all wearing traditional outfits,” she noted, adding some of the girls are wearing shorts and bandanas.

“But as far as all of the girls that are in the actual directions, they're all wearing just yellow [east], just red [south], just black [west], and just white [north].”

The women on the skirt also progress from the younger moments in Cochrane's life to future stages.

She said she decided to use just women because it's part of her healing process, and has had a hard time finding other like-minded women.

After she moved to Edmonton, that changed when she met a group of women through hockey.

“I never met women who think so much like me, or act so much like me, and want the best for people," said Cochrane. ”They're just amazing people and I felt like I grew so much within four years.

“So that's kind of what I based it around, just women helping women,” she added.

“They're all holding hands, they're all surrounding me, and they're all facing in because they're facing towards me.”

So much detail went into the skirt that the coloured ribbon on the top and bottom represent the sky and earth, and the bottom was soaked in tea and coffee to make a distressed, dirty look.

And the fabric used throughout the skirt all was reused from other projects.

The discolouration on the bottom represents education and the residential schools, Cochrane said, noting she didn't really learn about the residential schools until she was an adult.

“It's just crazy to think that all things that you think are normal when you're younger aren't," she remarked. ”Especially things like trauma.

“We're so incredibly used to that as aboriginal people, especially as children, that you don't recognize that that's not everyone.”

She added a lot of her healing came from learning about the residential schools, what people went through, and figuring out there's a reason why people are the way they are.

“It almost makes sense and you're able to move past it,” she reasoned.

The bottom part of the skirt also represents running away from residential school, and she pulled a lot of inspiration from Gord Downie's album, “Secret Path,” which was based on the story of Chenie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died on Oct. 22, 1966 while running away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora.

“So that's a common thing as a kid, fight or flight, and a lot of their responses was flight,” noted Cochrane.

“Take off, go back to what you're used to.”

Also on display at the library is a tree sculpture from a wood shop project, a couple of mixed media projects, and a self-portrait drawing.

“I loved wood shop and that was one of my favourite projects," Cochrane said of the tree sculpture. ”There's no real meaning to that at all, except for just build something that kind of looks cool.

“But kids always love it . . . because they say it looks like a "Minecraft" tree.”

Cochrane will be continuing her education of the University of Manitoba this fall, where she has three semesters left before finishing the program.

Her artwork can be seen at the library until the week of Aug. 20, just before Cochrane heads back to Winnipeg for the school year.

Anyone looking to have their artwork displayed can call the library at 274-9879 and ask for Nadine Cousineau (Mutz).

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