Create Calgary: Meet Faye HeavyShield

Image of Faye Heavyshield standing in Oldman River in southern Alberta on a clear sunny day
Faye Heavyshield at the Oldman River in southern Alberta | Photo: Candice Ward

Create Calgary: Meet Faye HeavyShield

Sable Sweetgrass, director of engagement and reconciliation at Calgary Arts Development, chats with award-winning Kainai artist Faye HeavyShield about history, creativity and inspiration

This article was originally published in Create Calgary, a new arts magazine launched by Calgary Arts Development in 2022 to celebrate the work of artists who call Mohkinsstsis/Calgary home. You can pick up a free copy at public libraries, community recreation centres and other places where you find your favourite magazines. You can also read the digital version online here.

It has been a significant year of recognition for Kainai artist Faye HeavyShield. This past June (2022), Faye was honoured with the Distinguished Artist Award from the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. Faye was also the recipient of the annual Gershon Iskowitz Prize, which includes an upcoming solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. I met with Faye to learn more about her journey as a Kainai artist.

What was your experience like attending ACA [Alberta College of Art, now the Alberta University of the Arts] back in the early ’80s?

It was really different, but I didn’t know anything else to compare it to. When I first started there, it was more or less a decision I made after trying other things that didn’t really fit. The first year was such a new experience. I was prepared for that because I had experienced that before leaving residential school to go to a town school. You just feel that difference. There was never any overt incident of being made to feel out of place; you just knew you were not like anybody else. Many of them were young students, and maybe a lot of them had a lot of experience making art in high school. They all seemed to have really definite ideas of wanting to be an artist, which I didn’t have. I just thought, “I’m here,” and it started to feel comfortable after a while. I was allowed to try things and spend time in the studio. For me, that experience was good just to spend so much time in the studio.

Works by Faye Heavyshield: (left) Untitled, 1992, wood, cement & acrylic; (right) Blood, 2004, cotton, cotton string & acrylic.

When it comes to creativity and art, who were the first people who influenced you?

As far as imagination, I always credit my grandmother, Kate Three Persons, with the stories she told. With those stories, anything could happen because she’s your grandma, and you believe what she’s saying, even though you know it’s a story. Also, the fact that you’ve heard these stories more than once and it was a treat when you would hear them, it was special, and you knew them by heart. That’s what made it so memorable, and it’s in keeping with how we, Niitsítapi, kept a record of our history through words and voices.

As a Blackfoot woman, were there challenges in your career as an artist?

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve met a lot of good people and I really find I was privileged that the gallery staff, 99 per cent of the time, were of a similar mind as far as the art I made. I don’t want to say they understood it, but they were open to it. In their place, they respected art. For the most part, I met people who knew what I meant when I said it had to be this way. There’s always that one per cent who are not that way, but, for me, it’s not really worth mentioning specific incidents like that. Any challenges that were in place were not enough to override the art I made. For me, it was always the art and not any specific politics. I just depended on the truth of the art, for that to be foremost.

What would your message be to young Indigenous artists?

I think it’s just about being true to yourself. We all have those times when we are not making art, just thinking about it. Step back and let that art set up a conversation with you so you’re not the one deciding everything. Really explore and don’t predetermine.

Faye HeavyShield is a sculptor and installation artist and a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy from the Kainai (Blood) Nation in the foothills of southern Alberta. Her striking, minimalist work is inspired by her memories, family and community. She studied art at the Alberta College of Arts (ACA), now Alberta University of the Arts, in the 1980s, and her work has been showcased across the country.

Sable Sweetgrass (she/her/hers) is a member of the Kainai Nation of southern Alberta, born and raised in Calgary, Mohkinsstsis. She is a short story writer, playwright and filmmaker. She is a graduate of the English program at the University of Calgary and received her MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sable is director of engagement and reconciliation at Calgary Arts Development.