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Fashionable armour

Erin Fletcher
Northern News Services

Inuvik (July 28/03) - Inuvik artist Christa Big Canoe Lewis takes an ancient skill to create modern masterpieces.

The 27-year-old is a multi-talented artist full of energy and enthusiasm for promoting the beauty of her cultural heritage.

NNSL Photo

Inuvik artist Christa Big Canoe Lewis models one of her favourite breast plates -- Sky Dancer -- and shows off a breast plate she and Edmonton jeweller Martin Goodliffe created during the 2003 Great Northern Arts Festival. The piece is called National Warrior Hunter and includes Northern aboriginal symbols. - Erin Fletcher/NNSL photo

She is best known for her choker and breastplate designs, but she also paints and does graphic pen art.

Based out of Inuvik, Big Canoe Lewis attended her first Great Northern Arts Festival this year, where she won an Emerging Artist award.

News/North: How long have you been making chokers and breastplates?

Christa Big Canoe Lewis: The breastplates by myself have been more recently. However I've been doing chokers, and the tools and skills to make breastplates since I was 11 or 12.

Most of my family are very creative on both sides. On my father's side, he's Anishnabbe and Mohawk. He grew up on Georgina Island. My entirely family are very artistically creative.

My father makes his own outfits for dancing. My Uncle Charles owned a very large craft shop in Ontario. My auntie she was a fairly big influence on me. My Aunt Lorraine and my Aunt Wanda. I spent summers with my Aunt Wanda up on the reserve.

I lived mostly off reserve. I spent my summers there and a lot of times we'd be sitting there cutting leather or doing different projects. Not just chokers or breast plates but everything from lighter cases to necklaces. And that's what we did in our spare time. We didn't watch a lot of T.V.

N/N: Although your work is based on the traditional form, how have you evolved the form?

CBCL: The bones I actually order. After going to workshops with the different carvers, metalworkers and jewellers they all realize how long it would take if you were handcarving it.

I would like to try and make a completely traditional breast plate. But in the evolution of what they call columella -- (the breastplate) started as shell not as bone. They would use sea conch and would bang the ends out of them or cut them with something sharp and then they would straighten them. It's amazing.

My undergrad is in history so I did actually study this. We make things all our lives but wonder where stuff comes from. You always hear some of the traditions and the stories but I always wanted to know more about the actual history of it.

The whole concept of the choker comes from the breastplate. It is a more modern thing. A choker is more a form of adornment whereas breastplates were always a form of protection.

They are basically armour. Which I think a lot of people don't realize because they're so attractive looking.

A spear or arrow head could cause injury or could be fatal so you're protecting your heart or your lungs in the front. You have the protection of the bone against any piercing.

N/N: Are these beads as tight as they would have been on the traditional breastplates?

CBCL: This is part of the modernization. These beads are tight but not as tight as they normally would be because we're looking at modern beads. Ideally they wouldn't have beads of the same shape. They would have probably put cylinders or columella of similar size, or they'd be cut smaller so you'd be looking at more of a plate.

Some of the most beautiful ones I've seen look completely solid. But this is more aesthetically pleasing in the modern context. I like taking the tradition of it or the historical perspective of it and modernizing it so it's usable in today's terms.

To me the breastplate is symbology. It is symbolic of tradition. Some traditionalists of some cultural groups don't believe women should wear breast plates. Some say "well there was woman warriors" so why can't it remain? Some traditional people aren't happy that artists are making stuff like this for women. Then there are others who find it very appropriate. You have to contextualize. There's no way to turn the page back in history. We have to exist and sustain where we are today rather then just say I'm going to be completely traditional.

N/N: What inspires you and how do you create original pieces?

CBCL: If it's a piece for that person then it is based on that person. Not just the colours that person likes but the colours they look good in. If it is a bright and vibrant personality then I will make a bright and vibrant choker. If someone is very serious and business-like then I try to reflect that.

My inspiration comes from the people I'm making it for. Or people that remind me of something. The blueberry and cranberry one comes from nature ... You have to figure out colour patterns.

Some colours just won't go. Like putting orange with blueberry wouldn't be a pleasant thing to look at unless it suited that person or their outfit or something.

So some of my inspiration comes from people or from concepts like North meets South.

It's usually themes, symbols or people. But people tend to be the most inspirational for me.

N/N: How many fashions shows has your work been modeled in?

CBCL: I've only done three and two of them have been very small ones.

Actually I've had four because one was at the University of Calgary during Aboriginal Awareness Week.

The Great Northern Arts Festival is probably the biggest fashion show.

N/N: How did it feel seeing your work on stage?

CBCL: Actually, I was back stage. I was dressing the people. I was really focused on them getting out on the stage.

I did see the shell headpiece and the wedding day choker come out because I wanted to see what it looked like. I had just finished the shell headpiece that day.

N/N: Why did you decide to get a history degree and now go to law school instead of a fine arts degree?

CBCL: I've always wanted to be a lawyer. I don't know if my family groomed me this way or if it was a personal choice.

Ever since I was a child and knew what a lawyer was I wanted to be one. Which is very odd. But at the same time I'm very interested in aboriginal law.

I'm interested in everything from land claims to hunting and fishing rights to environmental and water rights.