Interview with artist Vanessa Dion Fletcher
By Shahrzad Amin
As a graduate candidate at OCAD University, working with Artist-in-Residence Vanessa Dion Fletcher as part of the Experiential Learning Program provided an opportunity for me to became more familiar with her art practice and method of making. During that period, she showed me how to soak, dry, fold, and transform porcupine quills to create different outcomes. Assisting her during her Quills and Curiosity exhibition at OCAD and her Nuit Blanche installation at Fort York, was very inspiring to me. These experiences revealed the possibilities of using technology and integrating that with traditional Indigenous art of patterns-making to create different spaces for the viewers to interact with it.
Vanessa Dion Fletcher is a Lenape and Potawatomi neurodiverse artist based in Toronto. Working in a variety of mediums including performance, video and textiles, she has been passionate about art since her childhood. Dion Fletcher was diagnosed with a learning disability when she was young. In school, she struggled with many subjects and art was the only subject that she felt she excelled at, and she was enthusiastic about it. A combination of persistence, love for creating art and her family’s support encouraged her to pursue her goal of becoming a professional artist.
Her persistence in developing an artistic practice motivated her to pursue her BFA in studio art from York University (2009) and MFA in performance from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2016). Dion Fletcher’s artworks have been exhibited in Canada and the United States. She has shown her work at Art Mur, Montreal; Eastern Edge Gallery, Newfoundland; The Queer Arts Festival, Vancouver; Indigenous Art Centre, Gatineau, Quebec; Ada Slaight Gallery at OCAD University, Toronto; and Satellite Art Show, Miami. Over the past year, she has had the opportunity to work with institutions in Toronto. Vanessa received the Indigenous Arts and Culture Partnerships fund from the City of Toronto to be an Artist-in-Residence at OCAD University where I am studying as an MFA candidate.
“My mom had a principal role in terms of encouraging me to think about artworks as a career. When I was younger, she took me to art exhibitions and galleries and showed me some of the possibilities.”
Dion Fletcher explained that being an artist gives her the opportunity to share and visualize her ideas. In her work, she uses art to address subjects such as effects of colonization on Indigenous languages, the socio-political representations and implications of menstruation, and reproduction and the biological body.
“Art is the best way for me to communicate. Some people might give a lecture to share their thoughts, I use art to visualize my ideas, understand the world, and think about different kinds of social and political issues. Sometimes I pick the subjects that I think are underrepresented, and then I use art as a language to convey my message. the process of making helps me to understand my thoughts. It might not have a fully formed idea but through the making I come to have a new understanding of it.”
Dion Fletcher’s residency at OCAD University was initiated by Ryan Rice, chair of OCADU’s Indigenous Visual Culture program. The format of this program was useful to Dion Fletcher because it provided her with studio space for six months. Dion Fletcher often works out of her home, using her living space to create smaller pieces. Being in residencies provide larger physical space for her to work. The structure of her residency at OCAD provided her with the space and time to think and make work with the University’s facilities, students, and faculty for her solo exhibition.
“I think sometimes it can be tricky to make art when you feel you’re on an institution or other people’s timeline. This residency was long enough for me to settle into space and a process. Also, it allowed me to have access to the institutions, so I was able to foster relationships and utilize different tools and areas of knowledge.”
Developed over the course of her residency, Dion Fletcher solo exhibition, Curiosity and Quillwork, represents her commitment in using quillwork, a traditional Indigenous skill, to create her pieces. The exhibition included three works that incorporated a variation of quillwork: Zigzag in twenty-nine parts, a series of twenty-nine, 6×9” works on paper; Shifting Focus, a microscopic digital video; and Advancing Colors, a delicate installation of an ornate pattern spans 8’ square on the gallery wall that emulates the practice of birch bark quillwork.
“I began to work with porcupine quills in the Fall of 2017. Creating these pieces at OCADU helped me practice stitching and settle into space. Making them aimed me to think through what my ideas would grow into. I had so much interest working with quills, and it inspired me to do more research about them. This residency created an opportunity to learn a lot from the quills. I also learned more about the porcupine during that time. I decided to name the exhibition Curiosity and Quillwork because during the creation of these pieces, I became more and more curious about the material and the different ways that I could work with it.
First, I focused on abstract designs, using zigzag stich on paper. Then I used a microscope from the Life Studies program to make a video. Using the microscope, I was able to see the quills quite literally in a new way and to understand them from a different perspective. This experience led me to make my second piece titled Shifting Focus. To create this video, I put a pile of quills under a microscope and I shifted the focus in and out. The way that a pile of quills made lines, patterns and shapes was visually similar to the lines, patterns and shapes in traditional patterns. For me, as an artist, that was an interesting visual way to understand both contemporary quillworks, the history of it, and the material which is coming from this fantastic animal.
For creating my last piece, Advancing Colors, I use a method of quillwork that is done on quilled boxes. The boxes are made out of birch bark, and the quills are applied to the bark through small holes. I first read about this way of working with quills in 2015 I was amazed by the processes and wondered if I could apply the same technique to drywall instead of birch bark. This exhibition allowed the opportunity for me to experiment and make that work a reality.”
In her work, Dion Fletcher uses both manufactured and natural materials including fabrics, porcupine quills, glass beads, readymade objects, mirrors, and jute twine. She believes artists use a variety of materials and translate them into their own visual vocabulary, based on the evolution of technology. As an example, Dion Fletcher explained the transition of beadworks through time, using glass beads instead of the shells, or other natural materials. She is interested in utilizing natural materials in her works, because they come from Indigenous art practices, Indigenous artists in her community in Ontario, and other Indigenous communities such as the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee people.
“I became familiar with these materials a little bit late since nobody in my family uses them. I didn’t have access to learn how to do beading, quillwork, or work with leather. Even in school no one taught me any Indigenous methods or textile practices, so I pursued to work with some of those materials and methods myself. Using these mediums brings me back to the connection with language. I do not have access to my Indigenous languages; therefore, working with these materials has been a way for me to access specific aspects of culture and language and communicating that outside of spoken and written English. It’s been amazing to learn how to work with these materials. During the process of making, and by using these media, I can combine my interests and skills and communicate through them in different ways.”
I asked Dion Fletcher about the process of making an art piece. In this regard, she explained that her practice is quite varied.
“I begin from many different places, and so my process is different for each work. Sometimes I’m drawn to a particular material, or it might be a feeling or question that I want to pursue.” Therefore, the process of making looks very different for each project…Some projects are coming out of the specific invitation. In this situation, I start my work by considering those specific parameters, the space, the audience. Sometimes a project is very material based; for instance, my work about menstruation was inspired by the material, menstrual fluid, physical body, and social performance.”
Dion Fletcher created an installation titled Own Your Cervix, using materials such as porcupine quills, glass beads, damask patterns, and menstrual blood. She aimed to spread awareness for viewers to reflect about their physical bodies and what happens to that body during menstruation.
“The inspiration came from my emotions. I started to question why I was feeling so negatively about an aspect of my body that I could not have control over. I started to think about menstruation as an aspect of my physical self rather then something that was separate from me. All in all, I tried to visualize these thoughts by considering menstrual blood as an artistic material.”
Dion Fletcher shared with me the importance of technology, in relation to her recent collaboration with other Indigenous artists (Aylan Couchie, Jason Baerg, Logan MacDonald, and Ryan Rice) to create a multimedia installation for Nuit Blanche. Titled Listen to the land, the installation was a projection cast upon a heritage structure at Fort York, using performance, projection, sound, and Max/MSP/jitter. For this project, each artist contributed a different approach. Dion Fletcher’s contributions, reflected on her relationship to the land, symbolism, and pattern making.
“I chose a strawberry as one of the subjects of my video because it is an important food for Indigenous people. In some Indigenous languages (including Lenape), strawberries translate as heart berries because their shape is similar to the heart. I put a strawberry under a microscope, the same way I did with the porcupine quills. What I saw amazed me, the little seeds under the microscope made beautiful abstract geometric patterns. I could see little hairs on the berry growing straight out. The surface of the berry was so shiny, and there were little divests where each seed sat. There was a lot to play with between the abstract, the representational and pattern. I worked with strawberries and quills patterns to visualize the feeling and the rhythm that was coming from them.”
In addition to textiles and video, Dion Fletcher works as a performance artist. She decided to study performance because she believes in the impact the physicality of the body can have a prominent influence on the viewers. For her, performance has fewer limitations to share emotions and feelings. Dion Fletcher mentioned following artists as her inspiration:
“I had started to do performances in my undergrad, and I always wanted to pursue it in the master’s program. The inspiration to become a performance artist came from amazing indigenous artists such as Rebeca Belmore, Shelley Niro, Maria Hupfield. Another Inspiration’s source for me was artists who often talk to me about the influence of being in different locations as well as the influence of the physicality of the body to make an art piece. I chose performance because it provides so many possibilities.”
In my work, inspired by traditional Islamic art, I use a combination of historical architectural elements such as arches and combine them with videos and sounds to create an influential space for the viewers. In this regard, there are some connections between my work and Dion Fletcher’s creations, such as utilizing new media and incorporating them into the historical architectural forms or heritage structures to visualize the importance of cultures, places, and memories in a contemporary manner. Advancing Colors, uses traditional Indigenous textile traditions and integrates them into the gallery walls and architecture. The appreciation for repetition and pattern making in Indigenous art demonstrated in Dion Fletcher’s work are similar to what I use in my own practice.