Work of Art: si’káániksi~blankets by Hali Heavy Shield

These seven blanket designs displayed as vinyl wall hangings at Saddletowne Library are part of the Calgary Public Library Indigenous Placemaking program.

Photograph by Jared Sych.

Title: si’káániksi~blankets
Date: 2021
Artist: Hali Heavy Shield, a.k.a. Nato’yi’kina’soyi
Media: Digital prints on vinyl.
Size: Seven prints, each three-by-five feet.
Location: Saddletowne Library, Genesis Centre, 150, 7555 Falconridge Blvd. N.E.
Notes: Part of the multi-year project, Indigenous Placemaking, Calgary Public Library, supported by Suncor Energy Foundation. Heavy Shield’s digital art can also be seen currently as part of Divine Feminine, the summer chapter of the Land is Home exhibition at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.

With si’káániksi~blankets, artist Hali Heavy Shield has created seven blanket designs, on display as vinyl wall hangings in light-filled meeting rooms in the Saddletowne Library at the Genesis Centre.

Heavy Shield, also known as Nato’yi’kina’soyi (Holy Light that Shines Bright) is a member of the Kainai (Blood) Tribe of southern Alberta, but she has ties to this part of the city, having lived in the nearby community of Martindale in a Treaty 7 Urban Indian Housing Authority residence as a teen. She went on to work as an educator and literacy activist and is a co-founder of the Kainai Public Library, the first public library on an Alberta First Nation reserve, earning her a YWCA Women of Distinction Award.

Now a PhD student at the University of Lethbridge, Heavy Shield has turned to the visual arts as a focus for storytelling and sharing knowledge. The installation at Saddletowne is part of the Calgary Public Library Indigenous Placemaking program. Three of the blanket designs feature colourful patterns, while four depict animals. The design featuring symmetrical, high-contrast loons is particularly eye-catching, and, like the others in the series, carries layers of associations.

The image of a single loon, with its recognizable shape, becomes a simple form, while its splendid breeding plumage is represented with graphic dots and stripes. Joined back-to-back, the double loon motif repeats to form a circle. Half face outward as if serving as protectors, while the other half meet at the centre where the white space between them can be read as an eight-petalled flower, or a compass rose marking the orientation of the cardinal directions on a map. In this sense, Heavy Shield has deftly multiplied the image of the loon, a beloved summer lake dweller usually seen alone or in pairs, into a magical community.

Understanding the power of visual language was a given for Heavy Shield. In childhood, she saw her mother, Faye Heavy Shield, making art daily. Faye Heavy Shield is now honoured as a senior Canadian artist and is this year’s winner of the prestigious Gershon Iskowitz Award, which includes an upcoming solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Hali Heavy Shield draws inspiration from Edmonton-based Cree painters and printmakers Jane Ash Poitras and George Littlechild, both known for creating powerful visual narratives. She is also an admirer of the work of American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, author of the masterful graphic novel, Maus, A Survivor’s Tale.

Books and storytelling continue to be part of Heavy Shield’s narrative, as she is now set to publish a children’s book, My Grandma is an Artist, with Second Story Press.

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This article appears in the August 2022 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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