A wide variety of native crafts produced at the new centre in Charlottetown
by Michael Oliver
"This," says carver Levi Cannon, "is my life," referring to his role as artist-in residence at the Native Council Craft Center Gallery on Grafton Street in Charlottetown. The same enthusiasm can be heard in Project Manager Dan Knockwood's voice as he points out that this creative venture, operating only since December, is by far the largest Native crafting centre in the Maritimes.
The gallery contains a wide variety of Native artifacts, particularly those of Mi'kmaq origin, including baskets from Maria in the Gaspe region of Quebec, dream catchers, soapstone carvings, leather moccasins and vests, masks, and medicine wheels. Of special interest are shields displaying paintings of the Mi'kmaq petroglyphs discovered by Ruth Whitehead in the Yarmouth area.
The paintings on these shields were done by Levi Cannon, but the shields themselves were made by crafting people working on the premises for the duration of their contracts. Cannon, too, works at the Center, mostly carving talking sticks and dancing sticks and other artifacts. According to Dan Knockwood, there are plans for renting booths to freelance crafting people for a modest fee, so other Native workers can have space to work and to display their products.
Levi Cannon claims his mission is "to reproduce ancient ceremonial artifacts." He has been carving nine years now, as well as doing research on the art of carving story poles. In fact, he has been singled out by Sheila Copps, the federal Minister of Heritage, who has commended both his research and his carvings. Furthermore, it is quite likely Cannon will be nominated soon for Native Artist of the Year.
For Cannon, who grew up in Summerside but spent a lot of time out west, the Native Council Craft Center Gallery affords him opportunity to carve and paint in comfortable circumstances. After spending many years tattooing, after working on his carvings out in barns all winter, Cannon has a chance to give his art his full attention, and he is determined to produce as much as possible. Cannon's exhibition All Our Relatives has toured the major galleries throughout the Maritimes, but he has sold most of the carvings in that show, so he is busy doing more. He also is developing his talent as a painter.
In addition to the crafts and craft supplies it sells, the Center has a lunch bar specializing in what Kockwood calls "the best Indian tacos anywhere." The lunch bar also offers space to sit and talk, and all the people at the Center are hospitable and ready to discuss the work that they are doing.
Knockwood has already made arrangements for one Japanese bus tour to stop at the Native Council Craft Center Gallery this summer and is eagerly awaiting tourist season. In the meantime, funding for the Center Gallery has come from both the P.E.I. Native Council-the "mother group" as Knockwood calls it-and Human Resources and Development Canada. If pride is any indication, it seems likely that the Native Council Craft Center Gallery will both survive its first year and go on to prosper in the future.