Carmel Whittle is an accomplished Irish, Mik’maq visual artist, musician and song writer, educator and independent filmmaker hailing from Newfoundland – a province whose harsh beauty and strong people have molded her into an artist with a deep understanding of the struggle that Indigenous peoples face in Canada.

Her work is directed towards decolonizing social systems by encouraging dialogue between Indigenous peoples to non-Indigenous communities. She accomplishes this through the creation of pieces that seek to educate and reframe Canadian Indigenous narratives. Whittle hosts animated discussion groups specific to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls To Action in the arts. She is founder of the Indigenous Artists Coalition and a member of the Thunderbird Sisters Collective. She is also the founder of the No Borders Art Festival.

Leaving is not an option Carmel Whittle Lineage Arts Gallery Ottawa

Interview with the artist

What inspires the foundational concepts of your artwork?

Oh, I’d have to go back to where I’m from. It’s Newfoundland. Identity and Indigenous identity. The ocean and the landscape. Those all come together and that is my biggest influence. I’m a musician so music plays a part in some of my pieces. Colours and the way I work with them, that’s mostly related to where I grew up.

You touch on some pretty deep mental health issues in your work. You talk about the ocean and growing up in Newfoundland as being major influences, and of course music. Where did the mental health themes come from?

Just because I grew up with a lot of people who struggled with mental health issues. I don’t know, if it’s mental health as much as it’s processing the things that you see or experience in that environment. When you do grow up in that environment, then that impacts everything about how you do things, how you think about things, because it’s just not your average upbringing. There’ no predictability. You know people around you, who for so many reasons struggle with health, and especially mental health. In Newfoundland, in particular, there’s deeper issues. The fact that I came from genocide land, and I’ve always believed that people struggle, like they really have a major struggle, when there’s a whole piece of their identity that’s removed and you know it may never return. Couple that with other economic and social hardships, and it causes a lot of complications.

I think most of my work around mental health relates to justice. In addition to Indigenous narratives, I really am focused on women’s lives. A lot of my writing is based on women’s lives, especially Indigenous women and women in the East Coast. I draw stuff from my own parents. My mom had 20 pregnancies and 11 of us survived. So, you know, those influences really, really affected me. The fact is that I saw a lot of injustice. I’m pretty strong about how I feel about the protection, the care and the support for women. This is always on my mind. It shows up in everything beyond painting too, especially in my music. When I’m writing I’m very focused on how women are affected by hardship. I think about the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Those issues and those women are so significant. It’s what motivates me. People ask me all the time where I draw inspiration from. Even other artists. I tell them inspiration is all around us. And how you process all the shit around you informs my artwork too.

How has your heritage or your indigenous identity influenced your artwork?

That’s a really good question. Growing up I didn’t know I was Indigenous. Growing up, there was so much shame around being identified as Indigenous, parents just did not talk about it. For generations it was not passed down. I was fortunate enough to have a nephew, quite young, who started doing the research and we found all this about who were were and where we came from. All of a sudden, being Irish and Mi’kmaq was really quite something. My identity become so colourful and less fluid, and being gay was just another part of my identity and understanding of culture.

And, I mean, I haven’t forgotten my Irish heritage, it’s integrated into who I am.

What do you want to accomplish with your art?

Well, seeing as I never wanted to be an artist, I am open on that. If someone takes something away from my art, that’s great, but in my mind I have very little to do with that. I don’t think too much about where my art is going to go. My philosophy is that it will go where it goes and I just have to get out of the way.

Why is it important for art collectors, buyers or people who appreciate art to support indigenous artists? How can they do that?

If you ‘re buying art, then buy art by Indigenous artists. That’s the most obvious thing. But also take an interest in the art, whether you choose to buy it or just want to appreciate it. Engage with it. Ask about the artist. Ask about their story. Ask about the messages in their art. Show enough interest and give your time, even if you don’t buy a piece of the work, try to learn about what the artist is doing and why. These Indigenous artist narratives are so important for recognizing Indigenous artists’ work. Whether you’re indigenous or not, when anybody takes an interest, than what your showing is, on some level, support.