Amid the works in Buffy Sainte-Marie: Pathfinder are the archeological relics the folk-music legend used to create them.
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Buffy Sainte-Marie: Pathfinder
● Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art, 290 McDermot Ave.
● To March 5
Under glass at Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art is an Apple Macintosh computer, circa 1984, its motherboard and the 3.5-inch floppy disks that stored MacPaint files the 80-year-old artist made that became vivid prints that adorn Urban Shaman’s walls.
The ground-breaking computer, which was built with only 128 kilobytes of memory, is as much of an Information Age antiquity as the hammers, chisels, brushes and paint artists have used for millennia that are part of museum exhibitions around the world.
"It’s quite impressive and that was another point that struck me, the patience and intricacy she brought to the art," says Natasha Lowenthal, who curated Buffy Sainte-Marie: Pathfinder and works for Winnipeg-based agency Paquin Entertainment, which represents the artist.
"The tools were very rudimentary. The use of colour wasn’t there in the beginning. It was impressive to me and I felt like that was something that had not been communicated before to this capacity."
Pathfinder opened just before Christmas, and visitors were allowed to view the show at the Exchange District gallery by appointment, but Urban Shaman announced a temporary closure on Jan. 6, owing to the soaring number of COVID-19 cases in Manitoba.
The gallery is preparing a virtual exhibition for Pathfinder, which will remain on display until March 5 should the gallery reopen.
The computer — along with Sainte-Marie’s music, which plays softly in the background in the gallery — serves as a gateway to the show, which also includes photographs, album covers, stills from movies and television shows, newspaper and magazine clippings and personal mementos she’s collected over the years.
"The more conversations we had regarding her art and her intent and motivation and the history of the pieces themselves, the more I realized I was not doing it justice putting it in context of her career," Lowenthal says.
Sainte-Marie is Cree, and was born in 1941 at Piapot First Nation in southwestern Saskatchewan, but was taken from her biological parents as an infant and raised by in Maine and Massachusetts in the United States.
She learned piano and guitar, and eventually became one of the leaders of the 1960s folk-music boom, with her 1964 song Universal Soldier becoming an anthem for the antiwar movement.
Sainte-Marie’s own artwork can be seen on some of her album covers, including 1975’s Changing Woman and 1976’s Sweet America.
Sainte-Marie has performed and written many hits over the years, most notably 1982’s Up Where We Belong, which she co-wrote with Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings. The song, sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, was part of the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, and won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1983. The Oscar is on permanent display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a few blocks from Urban Shaman.
Her music career overshadows her life’s many other achievements. She’s also been an activist for Indigenous and antiwar issues, an educator, a mother, a philanthropist, an actor and, most recently, a children’s author.
"There is no departmentalizing her," Lowenthal says of Sainte-Marie. "She is everything that she appears to be, and that includes a visual artist. It made sense to put the pieces in context with the other facets of her career, because nothing really is created without touching on each genre that she reaches out to."
An anteroom at Urban Shaman has been transformed into a video gallery, which shows a a loop of videos from the Cradleboard Teaching Project, an educational initiative Sainte-Marie developed in 1997 aimed at teaching Indigenous children, as well as others, about Indigenous life and history.
Perhaps the most notable of the digital art is a self-portrait called Hands: The Coming of the Digital Age, which she worked on between 1988 and 1994, adding heavily saturated colour to her original MacPaint work. Lowenthal says Sainte-Marie was depicting the world bracing for the digital age.
"She does that with her music as well. She’ll perform the same song in a different manner, and it’ll be about interpretation and that connects with a different audience and that happens with her art too," Lowenthal says.
"She thinks of her art as in progress all the time."
The exhibition also includes a large version of Canada’s Post’s new Buffy Sainte-Marie stamp, which was released in November 2021.
"I think that everybody’s finding her 80th year has brought everything to light for her and she’s receiving a lot of commemoration for that," Lowenthal says.
"She’s one of the most dynamic, vivacious and intelligent people that anyone has the pleasure to know. She’s wonderful and brilliant and creative and funny and a really fantastic human being."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.