Becoming a professional artist was always the dream but never the plan for Michelle Sound. However, Michelle has found the best of both worlds at Douglas College. She splits her time between working as the Indigenous Advisor for the Certificate in Academic Foundations – Indigenous Studies (CAF) program and working as a professional artist, creating everything from murals to photographic art in her studio.
“I think I have always wanted to be an artist, but I never really thought of art as a full-time career,” said Michelle. “Even when I was a kid, I remember thinking that I would not be able to pay my rent solely from art and needed a more stable job.
“Art was always something I loved but imagined I would do in my spare time, so I am proud to now have two careers in academics and art.”
Most recently, Michelle’s work caught the eye of local Indigenous poet and author Billy-Ray Belcourt. The poet’s debut novel, A Minor Chorus, features one of Michelle’s pieces on the cover, Kinuso. The piece takes its name from Michelle’s family’s ancestral home in northern Alberta.
Breaking barriers and forging a path for the next generation
Despite her recent rise to notoriety, Michelle’s road to becoming a professional artist has not always been smooth. Michelle is a single parent and has had to make choices associated with that to ensure stability for her family.
“Finding the time and energy to work on art was quite difficult when my son was young,” explained Michelle. “I needed to maintain a full-time job to make sure he and I had benefits and security.
“Now he’s in high school, so I have been able to really focus on my art in the past two years. It’s allowed me to create a full body of work now as opposed to just a few pieces here and there like I did previously. [Creating a full body of work] has led to me finding more success in the art community.”
Another challenge for Michelle has been the biases of the art community. Canada’s art industry has always been known for being unwelcoming to Indigenous artists, and Indigenous women in particular.
“I have been working steadily for the last decade or so since getting my master’s degree, but it was hard at first,” said Michelle. “Traditionally, as Indigenous women, we do not get as many opportunities to share our work. When I was completing my Master’s of Fine Arts from Emily Carr University, it was rare for Indigenous women to get solo exhibitions.”
But in the past five years, according to Michelle, there has been a conscious shift towards repairing that relationship. Curators and institutions are becoming more aware of their biases and the history of discrimination with Indigenous women artists.
“The bad history remains, but there is hope among artists that things are improving,” she said.
“It feels like now is the moment I am realizing that I have an art career”
After years of hard work, this past year has been a whirlwind for Michelle. Her remarkable Auntie Drum Series elevated her to the national level and she became a finalist for the prestigious Salt Spring National Art Prize in 2021. The same series has featured in multiple solo exhibitions at galleries across Canada, such as Gallery 101 in Ottawa and the Daphne Art Centre in Montreal.
“It’s been an amazing year for me,” said Michelle. “Before last year, I’d only had my work featured in local group exhibitions. The response to my Auntie Drum Series was incredible. I had never had a solo exhibition, and then I had five in the last year.”
Holding it together
Kinuso is one of several photographic art and text pieces from Michelle’s most recent art series Holding it Together. The series navigates the hardships of Indigenous Peoples through the landscapes and languages of their traditional territories.
“It’s very exciting that Billy-Ray chose Kinuso for the cover of A Minor Chorus,” said Michelle. “Typically, book covers are designed specifically for the book, so I was surprised and honoured that they were interested in using an existing piece of mine. It is interesting for me to have something I have created go out into the world in this way.”
The cover of A Minor Chorus features many unique design elements, like beading, caribou tufting, rips and still photography. The photo is of the reserve in Kinuso, Alberta – the town Michelle’s family has traditionally called home. Adding textured features is a calling card of Michelle’s work. Many of her other pieces incorporate traditional Indigenous materials or dyed rabbit fur.
“For me, I rip out pieces to show the losses that have happened because of colonization: the loss of territory, loss of language and loss of people and family,” explained Michelle. “We as Indigenous people must live with the effects of those losses. Stories and art are ways we can process our feelings related to those traumas. So, sewing back up those rips or beading them back up is a way of filling in those holes and healing.”
Shared history leads to a shared future
Working with Billy-Ray on A Minor Chorus was a full circle moment. Michelle grew up in Vancouver, but her family’s roots are in Nothern Alberta. Billy-Ray and Michelle are both Cree, and the piece Billy-Ray chose for the cover has special meaning to both artist and author.
“That photo was taken on my reserve in Kinuso,” Michelle explains. “I am from Swan River First Nation, about three hours north of Edmonton near Slave Lake in Alberta. The reserve Billy-Ray is from is about a 20-minute drive from mine. So it was special for me to get to work with someone with a shared history.”
Michelle is content right now having dual careers as the CAF Advisor at Douglas and working as an artist. She loves supporting Indigenous students as they embark on their post-secondary education. She has found great balance in her life working at the College while fulfilling her dream of becoming a professional artist.
“I am incredibly fortunate to have two careers I love,” said Michelle. “Watching students find their footing at Douglas and then seeing them forge successful careers has been really rewarding for me. It has been a life-changing few years for me professionally with my success as an artist and I am excited for what the future holds, both with my artwork and at Douglas.”
Be sure to support Michelle’s work! Pick up a copy of A Minor Chorus when it hits shelves on September 13, and attend her art exhibitions in the future.