Tara Francis’ love for art is obvious, including from a young age, when she would steal her mother’s liquid eyeliner to draw on their home walls. This was just the start of her journey exploring art, spirituality, and self-expression. Today, Tara, who is from Elsipogtog, is a recognized Aboriginal artist in New Brunswick. She specializes in porcupine quill art and silk painting but also likes working with 3-dimensional pieces. Tara’s art is overflowing with substance, quality, and spiritual meaning.
“After going to school for other focuses, life kept leading me back to art,” Tara said. Her mentor at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, Gwen Bear, helped open Tara’s heart to a new way of approaching her art. “She helped me see the path my feet were on and I began to understand the spiritual aspect of Native culture. One of the very first teachings was that art was never separate from life as an Aboriginal person. [Gwen] helped open my heart and spirit, and ever since I have been strong on this path.”
When it comes to art, Tara has always had a special talent. When she graduated from high school, she received a bursary for art and as she left college she received an Aboriginal creation grant that became a pivotal moment in her career.
“Through [the grant] I explored the petroglyphs in Kejimkujik and I discovered a very rich collection of images from our ancestors which really defined who I was as a Mi’kmaw person,” said Tara. “Stretching back to the ancestors and bringing those images forward was a part of the beginning of my journey.”
Tara practices the traditional technique of porcupine quill work but she doesn’t create traditional pieces. Traditional creations would consist of baskets, cradles, geometric patterns, berets, etc. Tara puts her own touch on traditional porcupine quill work by thinking outside of the box. For example, one of her proudest creations is ‘the moth’ which took over 100 hours of work to complete. “I like to see what I can do with the traditional materials and take it to a new level as far as the artwork that I come up with,” Tara explained.
Tara’s art speaks to others because of her ability to dig deep into her own spirituality and apply it to her art. “New themes and images come to me with more spiritual moments and ceremonies I attend. They are all a part of the ride,” said Tara. “My connection with nature plays a big part in my artwork. I spend a lot of time in the apple orchards. Turtles are my animal totem and I am also a tree spirit. I have an affinity to trees and that stems from my childhood.” She continued by saying, “Different things come to you over time. For me, turtles, butterflies, trees, and deer are reoccurring images. Deer are an animal that has been in my life over and over again and I use the deer antlers to tell a story.”
Tara’s creations have touched many lives and the stories surrounding them motivate Tara to continue her work. She told a story of a lady who bought a small silk piece of a little moose. “She came back to me 6-7 years later and she still had that little piece of silk,” Tara explained. “She said when she went into surgery she fought with a nurse to keep the silk throughout the surgery. For her, there is more to it than a pretty silk scarf.”
“Art feeds the soul, it’s soul-food,” said Tara. “Whatever it is, there is a reason why someone reaches into their pocket to pay for something that will be put on a wall, worn around their neck, etc. Art is a pure way of expressing myself and my spirituality. [Art] is healing, it touches people’s spirits, it is above the mundane lives that we live in this society. If it can express something beautiful and add some brightness to people’s lives and also express the importance of taking care of mother earth and our connection to it, then that’s my job.”
For Tara, there’s a responsibility that comes with being an Aboriginal artist. Passing the art on to future generations is critical to her. She accomplishes this not only through her own art, but by taking advantage of any opportunity to teach as well. Tara has taught the craft all over the Atlantic provinces and has taught at gatherings such as ‘Healing our Nations’ and ‘Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Association’.
Tara hopes to promote Aboriginal art and artists on a larger scale. At an art exhibition in Dieppe in June 2016, the symposium saw several artists from all over Atlantic Canada come together. It was an opportunity for Tara and other artists to network and meet with sponsors. Tara proposed the idea of an Atlantic Canadian Aboriginal arts festival. “I would like to call it ‘Indigeneast’,” she said. “We need more Aboriginal art exposure and need more bursaries. We need to be identified and recognized across Canada of who we are as Aboriginal artists on the East coast.”
Her advice for the future generations of Aboriginal artists is simple. “Keep going, keep working, and keep at it. Be true to your spirit, know your culture, and express it. Never undersell yourself.” She then continued by saying, “I have committed myself to doing something that is true to myself, I am always sketching to express myself. You just have to keep going.”