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Teaching walls

Multidisciplinary artist Tannis Nielsen shares insight about her monumental mural project in the Lower Simcoe Street underpass.

Tannis Nielsen

Image courtesy of Tannis Nielsen 

If you’ve taken a stroll in downtown Toronto through the Lower Simcoe Street underpass in the last two years, you may have noticed the breathtaking mural work of Toronto multidisciplinary artist Tannis Nielsen. Her  massive murals, Gchi-twaawendan NIbi/Honour the Water (Water Wall) and N'gekaajig kidowog/My Elders Said (Elder Wall), were completed in collaboration with a number of young Indigenous artists over a two year period. We recently connected with Nielsen for a chat about the concept and significance of these monumental pieces.            

Insider: Can you explain the concept and inspiration behind both sides of the mural (The Water Wall and The Elder Wall)?

Nielsen: My intention was for both walls to act as a land acknowledgment. I wanted pedestrians to immediately recognize the mural as being Indigenous and to recognize it as a physical place maker of the Indigenous territory of Tkaronto –home to the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee. 

N'gekaajig Kidowog/My Elders Said consists of 28 portraits of local teachers/elders, each portrait is about 10 feet high by 7 feet wide with their names written underneath. This summer I am placing quotes/teachings from each elder upon the wall so that pedestrians will be able to gain access into some of the elders' teachings that are given in relation to the land and water.

Gchi-twaawendan NIbi/Honour the Water  was created to honour both Grandma Josephine (who started the Water Walk initiative) and the water, and to also act as means to introduce pedestrians to the importance of the very real concept that “water as life”.Grandma Josephine has walked a total of 17, 000 km in honour and recognition of the importance of water. She is the greatest Earth activist I’ve ever met.

Lower Simcoe Underpass mural
Simcoe 1
Lower Simcoe Underpass mural
Simcoe 2
Lower Simcoe Underpass mural
Simcoe 3
Lower Simcoe Underpass mural
Simcoe 4
Lower Simcoe Underpass mural
Simcoe 5

Insider: You engaged a number of young Indigenous artists to collaborate with you in the creation of the mural. How did you go about coordinating such a large project?

Nielsen: The first year (we started painting in September 2017), I invited six Indigenous students/emerging artists from OCADU and the local community to join. They include Tia Cavanaugh, Karalyn Ruben, Kaiatanoron Bush, Brad Laducier (aka Skratch) and another artist (who wishes to be anonymous); the following two summers I worked with only two artists.

I also asked Nyle Johnston to paint a scroll creation story for us that is depicted above the elders' portraits.

I honestly underestimated the time that it would take for me to complete these two walls. I’m going into my third summer now to finish the last few details. After completing a “to-scale” comparison, I don’t feel so bad for taking so much time to complete it. As both walls combined are 420 feet in length, and if the combined walls of this mural stood vertically, it would be  14 storeys taller than the Statue of Liberty. 

The mural is also a highly detailed realist painting. The intricacy of the florals on Elder Wall read like lace, and we used a renaissance technique in Water Wall, which is painted in grisaille and then colour-glazed. Most large scale murals include large flat/vacant 2D areas of flat colour blocks, but with this mural every inch of it has a detail painted within. 

I think this is the largest realist painting I've ever seen. I’ve been trying to research another as large and so far I can't find one. It is really monumental. I’ve had a number of scholars suggest that I make it into a book, a coffee table book.  I am going to consider doing that after documenting it. 

Insider: Why is the voice of young artists important? How can more established artists like yourself actively mentor younger artists?

Nielsen: Emerging artists have a greater unaffected vision. I think that us older artists sometimes get stuck in what we think makes great art and this disallows innovation, but the younger generation of artists are fearless and are inventing things not done before. They really are inspirational in this sovereign vision/process and in turn, have also become teachers to me. The learning is reciprocal.

I think it is important for established artists to mentor the next generation as a way of giving back to the community and passing on teachings to them.

Insider: In your opinion, what is the role of murals and street art in society? How do you think The Water Wall and the Elder/Honour Wall fulfill this function?

Nielsen: Nyle Johnston calls himself a Rock Painter and through this he reminds me that, as Indigenous muralists, we are continuing to do what our ancestors have always done, which is write our histories, cosmologies and teachings literally upon the wall.

These murals act as markers of place and allow pedestrians a means to enter into accessing some of these teachings and will also hopefully inspire the pedestrians towards a greater sense of achieving environmental sustainability.

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