breathe: creating resilience through traditional art

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Creating resilience through traditional art

July 14 – October 11, 2021

Through hardship, we turn to art; through challenge, we turn to tradition. Discover resilience and humanity amid a 21st-century pandemic in this exhibition of hand-crafted masks by artists from around the world.

The masks of Breathe share their makers’ unique stories of fear, courage, sadness, hope, love, and healing that unite us all. Each mask was crafted through diverse mediums including beadwork, embroidery, birch bark etching, quill work, quilting, rug hooking, metalwork, and glass fusion.


History of the Breathe project

In early 2020, most of the world was shutting down due to the spread of COVID19. When the virus made its way into Canada in March, isolation, closures, and disbelief had the population in the grip of rising panic. For some Indigenous people, it was déja-vu. It had not been many generations prior that infectious disease had gravely impacted First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. 

Within the first two weeks of Canada’s shut down, Métis artists Nathalie Bertin and Lisa Shepherd noticed a distinct lack of beaded objects being made by traditional artisans. It was curious since this was exactly the time that artists should be making art. In speaking with peers, it seemed the pandemic had completely blocked them of their ability to create.

By the end of March 2020, the artists co-created a project entitled "Breathe: A collection of traditionally crafted masks demonstrating resiliency through 21st century pandemic." Through social media, they invited people to create hand-crafted masks in a space where creative people could work out their feelings about the pandemic through their process of mask-making. At first, the thought was that the group would be for Indigenous artists and artisans. Through the realization that all people all over the world were affected by pandemic, the decision was made to open the group to anyone who wanted to create a mask in any traditional medium that is authentic to their culture and artistic practice. Their vision was that these masks would become artifacts that record a significant historical moment in human history. 

In a few short weeks, a strong, supportive, and incredibly creative community guided by the Indigenous teachings of reciprocity evolved. Participating artists shared heartfelt stories and stunning mask creations. The project reached beyond Canada’s borders, to the US, and many parts of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. 

The masks are true records of humanity and human life in a 21st century pandemic. 


History of the Exhibition

Forty-five masks created from the first wave of the pandemic were selected to represent the Breathe project. We would like to acknowledge and thank Maegan Black, Director, Canadian Crafts Federation; M. Sam Cronk, Former Senior Curator, Peel Art Gallery and Museum; Corrie Daniels, Laurier Indigenous Initiatives, Wilfred Laurier University; Anne Ewen, Curator, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies; Susannah Heath- Eaves, Film Maker,; Emma Knight, Assistant Curator, Indigenous Studies, Royal Alberta Museum; Alison Parry, Director of Cultural Studies, Royal Alberta Museum; and Helen Weber, LutherArt on the Wall, Martin Luther University College. Throughout July and August of 2020, masks were received at Nathalie Bertin’s home studio, photographed and catalogued. They began the touring exhibition at Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta in October 2020. 

In August 2020, a second call for submissions was organized for another separate exhibition run starting at Art Gallery of Guelph. Breathe: 2nd Wave will also be featured in a CBC Arts online exhibition and other Canadian galleries. A grand finale that brings both the first and second wave groups of masks together will exhibit at Textile Museum in the second half of 2022. 

Presented by Friends of Royal Alberta Museum Society.