Lights On The Exchange Artist Spotlight #1

Honouring Indigenous Stories

Lights On The Exchange, a public winter arts festival, aims to reconstruct historical narratives in relation to the district’s heritage buildings. Claire Johnston and Casey Koyczan share Indigenous history and traditions through their art.

Claire Johnston

Claire Johnston is a two-spirit Red River Métis artist with a passion for storytelling. Claire seeks to share Métis traditions and stories through her art practice, which includes several mediums such as writing, drawing, singing, and beadwork.

Claire’s first venture into life as an artist came after leaving a job in politics. As an autistic person with ADHD, she found the high-pressure job unsustainable and sought some time to rest at home in Winnipeg. Here, she began beading, learning from Métis and First Nations women like her beadwork mentor, Jennine Krauchi. Claire’s primary medium is beadwork, and her practice involves learning, making connections, and intentional use of materials. She reads Métis history and archival research about her family and ancestors. This sense of inquiry aids in her creative process, which she describes as intuitive.

Claire Johnston

“I trust my intuition, and what feels good to me usually ends up being something that looks more beautiful than I could have envisioned, so I see myself as a conduit for ideas. They come from somewhere, I get to do the thing, and then it becomes what it is. It doesn’t really belong to me, but I’m the one that brings it here.”

Claire felt her piece for Lights on the Exchange, “Lii Faam Michif Mashkawishiwak pi Tipeemishowak,” came to her with this intuition. The Winnipeg Arts Council asked her to submit a design for a lantern, and she woke up the next day with a vision of what she wanted to create. She set to work, seeking support and feedback from her family, which is full of talented artists. She had a Michif language keeper,  Elder Verna Demontigny, support with the translation of the lantern. Bringing her lantern to life was truly a collaborative process.

Claire’s Lantern tells the story of Annie Bannatyne, an upper-class Métis woman who lived in the Red River settlement during the late 1800s. Annie read a piece written by a white man named Charles Mair in the Toronto Globe that demeaned and disrespected Métis women. When he came to the general store her family owned, she whipped him with a horsewhip in resistance and defiance, shouting, “This is what the women of Red River do to men who insult them.” This act inspired Louis Riel’s subsequent resistance during the Red River Rebellion and is even referenced in a poem he wrote.

The lantern, Lii Faam Michif Mashkawishiwak pi Tipeemishowak,” translates to “Metis women are strong, and they own themselves,” and showcases a drawing of Annie with a whip in her hand. Claire feels connected to Annie Bannatyne, citing her strength, spirit, and ability to get things done as traits she resonates with. For Claire, Annie exemplifies the idea that Métis women have ownership and autonomy, stating, “People don’t get to tell us who we are, and we get to decide who we are and what we do, especially on our own homelands.”

It’s important for Claire to acknowledge the Métis contribution to the Exchange District, as “A lot of people still don’t know the host nations and the history of this land.” Through her piece, she hopes to share the story of Annie Bannatyne, whose family name is McDermot, and their critical contributions to the city. 

A note from Claire’s research describing her relationship to Annie

There are streets named after these families, yet their stories often remain untold. Artists like Claire help open our eyes to the rich history of their legacy. In Claire’s words, “These hints of history are there, and if people scratch at them more, there is always a story to be told.”

An exciting piece of history Claire recently encountered is her connection to Annie Bannatyne, whom she felt intuitively drawn to. Through research this year, Claire learned that she is related to Annie Bannatyne through marriage. She’s since begun work on a second piece of art associated with Annie Bannatyne, and more of her work will be showcased at an upcoming solo show in September 2024 in partnership with the Arts Accessibility Network of Manitoba.

You can find Claire’s lantern on the corner of Main and Bannatyne as a permanent installation, the lantern illuminated during the festival. See more of Claire’s work and stay up to date with her upcoming exhibitions on Instagram.

Instagram: @clairejohnston__

Casey Koyczan

Casey Koyczan is a Dene interdisciplinary artist from Yellowknife, NT, who uses various mediums to connect culture, technology, and self-inquiry. 

Growing up, Casey was always fascinated by science fiction, technology, and photography. His first exposure to digital art composition was through Photoshop, Illustrator, and Premiere during high school. “I seemed to always have a still or video camera around and would capture moments with my friends,” remembers Casey.

This budding passion for the arts and media led him to the Multimedia Production Program at Lethbridge College. After completing this program, he worked at a photo studio in Yellowknife and gained more knowledge of photography and cinematography. He then moved to Kamloops for the Fine Arts program at Thompson Rivers University, where he discovered sculpture and installation. “This seemed to be the perfect fit for me as I was able to implement many different art forms in the same setting,” says Casey.

Casey and his piece Tadǫetła ; Walk In A Circle

Casey has since spent time working on exhibits, talks, and international residencies and completing his Master of Fine Arts at the U of M — a decision he made after spending a few weeks in Winnipeg for the “Insurgence / Resurgence” exhibition.

Casey still works with sculpture and installation alongside the digital arts realm — a shift he made during the pandemic when he could not exhibit physically. As an interdisciplinary artist, he creates a variation of pieces using different mediums together. He draws inspiration from his Dene culture, his homeland of Denendeh / The Northwest Territories, Sci-Fi, Technology, music, emotions, and nature.

When asked about his style, he said, “Most of my art tends to have darker inclinations, but I’m constantly pushing myself out of my comfort zone in order to expand on my understanding and abilities.” He likes to surprise himself with pieces that are more colourful, playful, or outside his usual wheelhouse.

Casey’s piece for Lights on the Exchange, “Tadǫetła ; Walk In A Circle,” is an ongoing body of digital animations representing Indigenous art and life materials re-imagined as spirits and creatures with human characteristics. The piece draws inspiration from materials like moose/caribou hair tufting, beadwork, hide-tanning and quillwork, which are interpreted digitally. The intention is for people to be able to see themselves in these works and to appreciate the materials used in different ways. 

Casey’s representation of Spruce Gum

Although Casey does not use many of the materials represented in his piece in the real world, he still handles them with the same amount of love and respect as if they were physically present. “My artwork represents the history of our people as well as a new way of working with and appreciating these materials in an environment that is unbound by the laws of physics.”

For Casey, the Exchange District is a place to share knowledge and experience, celebrate, gather, and converse. He is honoured to be working with Manufacturing Entertainment and Lights on the Exchange to showcase his artwork at such a large scale and share representations of Indigenous life.

You can see Casey’s piece at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre at 174 Market Ave.

Or check out his other work online:

Instagram: @caseykoyczanart