Alex Janvier picks through dozens of paintings propped against the wall in his studio on an unpaved road on Alberta’s Cold Lake First Nations. With the exception of a few fortunate people, nobody has ever seen them.
Some are unfinished. Some are unsigned. Some he is not yet satisfied with. “They give me pause,” he says.
He retrieves one from the stack and lays it carefully on the table before him. As he begins to paint, the soft, haunting melody of Loreena McKennitt’s An Ancient Muse fills the air. Around him, the room is afloat in a river of colour.
Janvier is widely regarded as one of Canada’s greatest living Indigenous artists. Born in 1935 of Denesuline and Saulteaux descent, he is known for vivid abstract paintings that hang in public galleries and private collections across the country. As his 2006 Order of Canada citation put it, his body of work "is a powerful celebration of his Indigenous roots.” But as with thousands of others with Indigenous roots, Janvier’s life has been deeply marked by his experiences in the residential-school system – he was not yet 8 when he was taken from his family to Alberta’s Blue Quills Indian Residential School.
In his studio, there are bins full of tubes of acrylics and watercolours. There are cans stuffed with dozens of brushes. An illustrator’s notepad sits near a palette covered in a rainbow of dried hues. The arms of chairs are splattered.
Janvier works in silence over the two-by three-foot canvas. Strokes of blue and green are added to a composition made up from lines and circles.
He paints and scrutinizes and paints some more. He pores over every detail.
Finally, he is done.
“I think this one is going to turn out pretty good,” Janvier says.
He has yet to give it a name. “Do you name children before they are born?” he asks.
He is 83 and his hair is as white as an untouched canvas. Time and torment etched lines in his face. He has difficulty hearing out of his left ear, where a nun struck him as a child.
“I didn’t duck fast enough,” Janvier says.
His voice is soft and gravelly. His eyes are equal parts meditative and merry.
“I am a lucky man to do what I do,” he says. “I am in love when I am painting. Somebody could shoot me and I wouldn’t care less.
"It is what saved me.”
He began to draw as a toddler, using a stick in the mud on wagon trails on the reserve in northeast Alberta where he grew up.
“The ground after a rain was my first slate,” Janvier says.
Over the past year and a half, 154 of his paintings have been on a tour across the country. From New Brunswick to Ontario to Saskatchewan to Alberta, nearly 150,000 people viewed the travelling exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Canada. (It wrapped up its final stop, at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, earlier this month.)
Murals by Janvier can be found in public spaces in 25 locations across Canada. The largest, Morning Star, adorns a ceiling in the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. He did it over a period of months in 1993, suspended beneath it like Michelangelo.
Soon, Janvier’s work will be seen in Italy for the first time. Beginning on Nov. 15, three new watercolours will be displayed in Rome as part of a show by artists from three countries.
“I don’t need to be remembered,” he says. “It is my paintings that are going to do that. Alex Janvier needs to find a Mona Lisa that will outlast all of the other works he has done.”
He surveys the cache stored in his studio and wraps his arms around a brightly coloured circular canvas that is six feet across and hoists it up on an easel. It is one in a series of two abstracts called Day and Night. He muses about requesting $1-million for each.
He says he has been asked 1,000 times to explain his paintings. He draws inspiration from his surroundings and from Indigenous culture.
“It is simple,” Janvier says. “I try to stay close to my heart. You can’t help but be who you are. What can I be, other than who I am?”
Janvier grew up as one of 10 children born to Marie and Harry Janvier, the Cold Lake First Nations’ last hereditary chief.
The family lived in a small house lit by a coal-oil lamp and heated by a wood stove. The youngest baby would sleep in a swinging cradle. Moss was used instead of diapers.
The Janviers raised cattle, chicken and pigs. They ate wild duck and fish from Cold Lake. They trapped coyote, fox, mink and muskrat, and sold the furs to local merchants. Marie used coyote and muskrat to line her children’s clothing. She also did beadwork and created baskets out of birch bark.
Alex was 7 and his sister, Elsie, just 5 when they were tossed into the back of a cattle truck and hauled 150 kilometres to the Blue Quills Residential School near St. Paul.
It was one of 20 residential schools in Alberta, and part of a nationwide system established in the 1880s. Over the next century, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their homes and placed in 130 schools. Acts committed under the guise of teaching them to assimilate into Canadian society led to a class-action lawsuit and the formation in 2008 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Thousands of victims testified and detailed horrendous abuse. The federal government apologized and paid more than $2-billion in reparations.
“I am still trying to grow up,” Janvier says. “They removed me from my family as a child, removed my spirituality, and tried to remove my language.
“I would like to say today that they have failed.”
Janvier sits beneath firs and pines at the edge of Cold Lake. Above him, wind whispers through the trees.
Squirrels chatter. A loon calls. Waves roll gently onto shore, near shrubs purple with saskatoon berries.
“This is my church,” he says. “I meet the Lord any time I am in the bush. I call it my university. Tomorrow, I may call it heaven.”
Moose innards boil over a campfire on the piece of land where he and other members of the Cold Lake First Nations are gathered. The Denesuline call it Jie Hochilai, or Berry Point. Artifacts that date back 900 years have been uncovered here.
“This is the last of our traditional areas,” Janvier says. “All summer, there is a steady flow of people enjoying nature, fishing and eating berries. Some just come to get fresh air.
Steam rises from a pot of moose ribs. A leg bone roasts atop a grill. Strips of moose meat dry on freshly cut branches above a smoky fire.
Shot hours earlier, the animal is carefully butchered by a handful of band members. It is both a ritual and a celebration.
“I prayed, and after that, a moose came across my sight,” says the hunter, Wally Loth. “The animal gave itself to me.”
It is more than a source of food. Tools will be carved from its bones. Its legs will be used to prop up tables. Bags that carry water will be fashioned from its stomach.
An 11-year-old, Channelle Nezcroche, dives in. She is eager to learn from the elders. The apron she wears is bloody.
“This is part of who we are,” Janvier says. “We are ordinary people, but when we do these things, we come alive."
Moose is served. Marrow is scooped from a leg bone and smeared on bannock. Ribs are shared. Broth is ladled into bowls. So are intestines and organs.
Janvier has one cup, and then another. After that, a third.
“It is soul food,” his daughter, Jill, says as she watches. “It is immersion for his soul.”
She is 39 and a photographer, a sculptor and a budding painter. She helps out at her dad’s gallery with her sister, Tricia, and their mother, Jacqueline.
Art is in the family blood: Like Jill, Tricia has also begun to paint. Two years ago, she was watching as her father completed a commissioned work. Unexpectedly, he invited her to participate.
“All of my life I have been afraid of making mistakes,” Tricia says. “He put me in front of it and I stood frozen in fear. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry, my girl, you can’t ruin a painting.’
“It relieved all of my tension and all of my stress. It was his way of telling me that you can’t live without taking risks. For me, it was a life-changing moment."
She accompanies him when he does a residency as a visiting artist. He lines pieces of paper up against the wall and paints a dozen abstracts at once, side by side. He applies colour to one and then another and then the next, then goes back and starts over again. In a week or two, he produces 100 to 200 works.
“I don’t think his feet touch the Earth very often,” Tricia says. “He lives in a different world and sees different things than the rest of us.”
The artist and his wife have been together 51 years. They met in a church on the Cold Lake First Nations’ LeGoff Reserve. She wore a white laced scarf and sat in a pew at the front. He was in the choir.
“Every time I looked up, he was staring at me,” Jacqueline Janvier says. “He claims he was looking at his song book, but he was peeking over it.”
“That is an exaggeration beyond words,” the great painter protests.
She went to mass for several Sundays, and then, one day, he showed up at her door. He claimed to be confused and said he was looking for somebody else.
She invited him in anyway.
“Well, he just kept standing there,” Jacqueline says.
They have six children and 21 grandchildren. He paints and she runs his gallery.
“We are older than the hills,” he says.
Janvier vividly remembers the day in 1941 when a federal Indian agent arrived at his family’s farm. The government official came with residential-school nuns and a Mountie with a gun at his hip.
Harry and Marie were threatened with arrest if they refused to hand over Alex and Elsie.
“From that moment until I was 17, I was caught in the system,” Janvier says.
The siblings sat in the back of the truck with other bewildered and crying children. They couldn’t see over the sides.
“We could feel the movement, but didn’t know what was happening,” Janvier says.
Parents dressed children nicely on the First Nation, but their clothes were stripped off as soon as they arrived at Blue Quills. They were forced to wear uniforms. Their heads were shaved.
“Most kids had braids,” Janvier says. “That didn’t matter to anyone. They cut them off. Next thing they’d do is inspect your back end.”
Children that spoke Dene at home were made to speak English. They were punished if they didn’t. Boys and girls were separated.
“I couldn’t even talk to my little sister,” Janvier says. “I remember Elsie standing and wailing beside a doorway once. I went over to her and we both cried together. Then they kicked me out.
“In front of our parents, the nuns had showed a display of great love. The next day, their character changed completely.”
It was while attending Blue Quills, though, that Janvier’s art skills were discovered. Father Etienne Bernet-Rollande, the school’s principal, arranged for him to have a tutor. Carlo Altenburg, a University of Alberta professor, taught him the basics of draftsmanship, the dynamics of spatial relationships and the mastery of colour.
At 15, Janvier painted his first commissioned work, Our Lady of the Teepee, for the school chapel. The local bishop, Maurice Baudoux, thought the rendering of an Indigenous Virgin Mary and Jesus was so spectacular that he asked him to paint another.
The copy was sent to Pope Pius XII. In response, the Holy Vicar sent a certificate of appreciation from the Vatican to Janvier. Nuns seized it from him.
“That is the hole I crawled out from,” he says.
After graduating from high school, he was accepted into art college in London. He didn’t go – he was denied a passport by the Canadian government because he came from a First Nation.
He also applied and was accepted into the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. He was unable to attend there, either. Without consulting him, an Indian agent enrolled Janvier in the Alberta Institute of Technology and Art.
“He did everything he could to discourage me,” he says.
When he graduated with honours in 1960, Janvier was among the first Indigenous students in Canada to obtain a degree from an art college.
He became a teacher with the University of Alberta’s extension program, and then embarked on a career that has lasted seven decades. At one time, as a protest, he signed canvases not with his name but with his band’s treaty number – 287 – assigned by the government.
“You have to think about the mentality of trying to conquer people who will not be conquered,” Janvier says.
In the early 1970s, he joined Jackson Beardy, Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig and others in founding the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. They quickly became known as the Indian Group of Seven.
“For years, we were compared to the white Group of Seven,” Janvier says, referring to the famous painters whose work was inspired by Canada’s landscape. “Largely, people didn’t believe we would amount to much of anything.
“I think it is fair to say now that we outlasted them. I don’t think A.Y. Jackson would be too happy.”
A stream of visitors have come to the Janvier Gallery since it opened in the fall of 2012 on the First Nation just north of the city of Cold Lake. The building was designed for Janvier by his friend Douglas Cardinal, the renowned Indigenous architect and a fellow residential-school survivor.
Walls inside are covered with a treasure trove of the artist’s work. One painting after the next contains sinuous lines and circles infused with breathtaking colours and Indigenous symbols.
“My work has always been pretty abstract,” Janvier says. “Nature gives you that opportunity. You walk in the bush and look at leaves and see all sorts of designs in there.
“As you get close to the water, there is a variation in colour. Anywhere you look at the sky, it looks different.”
He walks around the gallery slowly and pauses to gaze at pictures. He offers descriptions but urges visitors not to be influenced by his words. He prefers they find their own meaning.
His eyes fall upon Groundless, a 36-by-24-inch oil painting.
“These are little flowers,” he says. “The colours seem to change as you walk through them.”
Next he stops at Spring Time, a 20-inch circle painting done in acrylic.
“When spring comes and thawing begins, you begin to see the underlying frozen beauty,” he says.
Finally, he surveys The Fire, a 24-by-30-inch acrylic done after the massive blaze that enveloped Fort McMurray in 2016.
“Pine cones crackled and exploded all over,” Janvier says. “The firefighters did not know how to battle against it. They should have asked the natives. They could have helped isolate it.”
The cost of his original paintings and prints range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands.
"When you see his works, even those he painted long ago, they still stand up and are masterpieces," says Michelle LaVallee, director of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Art Centre in Gatineau. "The freshness of his work is constant."
A $700,000 mosaic that he created using almost a million stones is set into the floor of the public entrance to Rogers Place, the arena that’s home to the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
When the new Royal Alberta Museum opens in downtown Edmonton on Oct. 3, one of Janvier’s most famous paintings, Blood Tears, will be on display. The painting, completed in 2001, speaks to his experiences at Blue Quills. On the back is a list that details losses suffered by children at residential schools. It ends with the statement, “The rest will take their silence to their graves as many have to this day.”
“When you look at his paintings, it is a spiritual experience,” his daughter Tricia says. “You can feel his paintings no matter who you are or where you come from. He has a special gift. It is an escape for him from all of the struggles he has had and the atrocities he has experienced.”
He retreats to the lake where his friends are gathered at Jie Hochilai for a second day. The Cold Lake band’s traditional territory is slowly being taken away. The Canadian military established a bombing range nearby where thousands of members used to come once a year for a reinstatement of their culture. Alberta Parks runs a campground now on a parcel where members used to have a sweat lodge and collected berries and fished.
“We don’t always have the money to fight government,” Janvier says. “They don’t fight fair. That is the world we live in.”
A young woman sits and prays to her Creator, back turned to logs crackling in the fire. Teenage boys fill up cups with berries plucked from bushes at water’s edge. Soon, the saskatoons are being cooked in a skillet and poured atop bannock.
Moose is fried in a pan. Freshly caught trout sizzles inside aluminum foil.
“I tell people where my work comes from, but those are just words,” Janvier says. “Here, you can see it, and better understand.”
The sun struggles to shine through a peachy haze caused by forest fires in British Columbia. The artist’s son, Duane, plays the drum and sings in Dene with another man.
The crowd begins to dance in a circle, some with their arms interlocked.
Alex Janvier dances alone.