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Learning and Connecting Through Art

Colourful beadwork being worked on over a video conference

Learning and Connecting Through Art

It's become something of a Sunday night ritual. From her Yellowknife studio, Gwich'in designer Tania Larsson gets together with a dozen or so fellow artists and friends. They check in on how they're doing while also chatting about the different creative endeavors they're each working on.

Larsson facilitates the conversation. As each participant takes a turn, they hold their current artistic project up in front of themselves, allowing their cell phone or laptop cameras a moment to focus on an ornate set of beaded earrings or a miniature traditional doll. Yes, the Sunday night beading circles take place online-over a Zoom chat, where so many of our daily interactions have migrated to. But with new relationships budding and others becoming stronger, there's clearly zero intimacy lost in this communication medium-despite the occasional lag here and there from a slow internet connection.

Tania Larsson, Artist and designer - Photo Credit: Razelle Benally

Larsson had the idea of hosting an online beading circle when governments the world over began to restrict travel and people started to self-isolate at home. As an artist, Larsson is used to sequestering herself away in her comfortable studio, where she designs and creates beautiful caribou- and moose-hide earrings and studs adorned with intricate beaded floral designs, and sterling silver necklaces featuring stunning muskox horn pendants. These works of art have been featured in the pages of Vogue magazine and graced runways across the continent.

"The way that most people are living now is something that I usually do," she said, with a laugh. "I'm always working from home." Larsson thought she could extend a hand to some of her more social friends to bring a sense of normalcy in a chaotic and scary time.

Ironically, a pandemic keeping us apart physically is also bringing people closer together. Through these Sunday night beading circles, Larsson has gotten to better know artists from all over North America that she admires. "I get to sew with artists that I follow on social media," she said. "Some I have met; some I have never met before."

Larsson is a founding member of Dene Nahjo, an Indigenous collective in the Northwest Territories that promotes Indigenous leadership and advances social and environmental justice. The online beading circles have given her an opportunity to learn more about other Indigenous nations, with Yup'ik, Athabascan, Lakota and Ojibwe friends logging in every week. "It's just a time where we can share where we come from, who we are, which nation we're from and what projects we're working on," she said. "Each of us have different histories, so it's also a great time to actually talk about it. We're learning from each other."

"Each of us have different histories, so it's also a great time to actually talk about it. We're learning from each other."

One fellow artist, Larsson explained, displayed some earrings she was making that weren't in the traditional beadwork style from her nation. "But the representation that she was doing was a traditional basket. So the visual is, for example, from her tribe."

Artist displaying their colourful beadwork via zoom conference

The conversations can get technical, focusing on beading preferences ("What's your favourite thread conditioner for beading? What are your favourite needles?"), but they also highlight different beading techniques and styles. "We get to actually talk about how we do things in our own nations and I find that super enriching because we're not pan-Indigenous. It's not because you are native that you have the same worldviews. You don't have the same practices or adornments or stuff like that, so it's really great to ask questions about someone else's nation and how they do the beadwork their way," she said. "There are some things that are completely different and some things that are similar, but it's great that we get to all sit together and share with each other."

Colourful beadwork on moose hide

The online beading circle is just one of many ways Northerners are staying connected and learning from one another. Larsson pointed to the Aboriginal Sports Circle of the Western Arctic, which has hosted a variety of online workshops since the onset of the pandemic. "There's boxing fundamentals, jigging, gardening," she said. "It's for your mental and physical wellbeing, so it's pretty cool." Larsson herself was preparing to teach a lesson on how to make a caribou hide scraper-extending her hand and bringing some normalcy to others in these strange times.

See Tania Larsson's stunning jewellery here.

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