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Facing the Public

Doug Smarch Jr. Creates for a community
II by Elaine Corden II
Arts, North of Ordinary~Winter 2011 (V5I4)
By any standard, Doug Smarch Jr. is on a hot streak.
   In 2012, the 44-year-old Teslin Tlingit citizen became the first Yukon artist to have a piece in the National Gallery of Canada, with the gallery's acquisition of his animation instillation Lucination. That same year, Smarch's Ignition, a three-minute animation, was released alongside 12 other films by First Nations and Inuit artists as part of the National Film Board's Vistas project, designed for the Vancouver 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Furthering his career's momentum, Smarch was featured in the prestigious 2011 exhibit Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, which gathered over 30 respected indigenous artists from around the globe for a group show in Winnipeg. Back in the Yukon, Smarch's photographs work, Erased, was acquired by the Yukon Permanent Art Collection and displayed at the Yukon Art Centre, in Whitehorse. Clearly Smarch's work, which explored First Nations traditions using contemporary media, resonated with audiences and is important enough for inclusion in collections curated to showcase important ideas in Canadian culture.
   Smarch will need all his talents for his latest, and perhaps largest, creation. In July 2011, the Yukon Government named Smarch as the winner of a $90,000 commission to create an artistic centrepiece for the new Haines Junction Visitor Centre. And while any publicly funded artwork creates a unique challenge for the artist, this particular project world be particularly demanding: the Haines Junction Visitor Information Centre will be housed in the brand new Dä Ku Cultural Centre, a 27,000-sq.-ft. facility owned and operated by the Champagne and Aisihik First Nation, scheduled to open June 21, 2012. The facility will serve as a meeting place and resource centre, as well as a spot for the community and visitors to learn about First Nations culture, Space in the facility will also be leased to Parks Canada for a new visitor centre for Kluane National Park. In some ways, creating for this space could be the perfect storm for an artist. While the piece is ostensibly for the Yukon Government-run Haines Junction Visitor Centre, its proximity to the National Park and the fact it will reside within the First Nation's traditional territory demands that a host of interests be respected. The piece would need to be welcoming to guests and appealing to residents and respect the cultures and history of the region while also expressing a unique viewpoint. No small task.
   Over the phone from a studio in Nanaimo, B.C., Smarch explains the origins of his winning commission, Ice and Flowers, which will feature thermo-formed acrylic faces suspended from the ceiling and surrounded by flowers inspired by Southern Tuchone beadwork.

Photo: Doug Smarch Jr./Yukon Government

   "This one was tricky, says Smarch, who regularly consults with former instructors and colleagues, including his elementary-school teacher, Katherine Miller. "What I was told is that when some people do public artwork they need to consider everything--the  type of building, how the piece will be looked at, how to be different enough to challenge the viewer.....I can't measure a reaction, but my mentor would say to make sure it's beautiful. I had to rely on the jury to tell me where it was at. There was this riddle that I have to solve. The piece couldn't be about one place' it had to be about everybody."
   When Smarch details the sources of his inspiration, which range from stories about mammoth hunting passed down by his Tlingit ancestors to being offered a Bic lighter at a ceremony where he was trying to demonstrate ancient fire-starting methods, it's apparent there' a voracious curiosity built into his art practice. Threads of the past and present--a Maxwell House Coffee commercial, a first encounter with Tlingit traditional artwork--are woven together to create something he hopes will be timeless.
   "The story of Ice and Flowers came from thinking about where I'm from," explains Smarch, who studied art at institutions across the U.S., France, and Italy. "When people ask me where I am from, I remember what we used to say is, 'I'm from the land of the ice.' And when people ask me about the Yukon, they always ask how cold it is or what's the weather like. Wherever I go I always get that question. Everybody gets that question. So I thought, that's a good place to work from.
   "Then I brought it back to my own experience," he says, citing his fondest memories from his childhood spent in the bush around Teslin. "My mother always made all of our clothes when we were growing up. It was nice stuff, too. I had this beautiful coat with embroidery on it and moose hide mitts On cold days, she put moccasins on is to walk to school. I remember there was this hard trail, and on the way home me and my brother Clifford would get to this certain spot and just run as fast as we could. And we would just laugh the whole way.
   "So for me, now, when I'm going across the lake on a Skidoo and I'm looking at the flowers on my mitts, I'm going back to the land of ice and flowers. I'm going back to that time."
   Smarch notes that Ice and Flowers has changed meaning for him as he created it. He's thinking more about the identity of the faces, about the traditional trade routes that went up and over glaciers surrounding the Kluane area. He's thinking of his previous work, Lucidations, which explored the idea of his ancestors' encounters with newcomers and the element of the unknown to their appearance. And he's remembering a colleague from art school, who turned to him once while out in the desert and said, "We are all here together."
   "One of the jurors said to me this is a work where people will go in and they will say, 'You have to see this,'" he says. "I really like that idea. With a lot of my work, people tend to get really quiet. And I think that's important to have a place where you can go and just let your mind first a little. I don't have a way to measuring that, but I just remember what one of my mentors told me, which is try to make something beautiful." Y
 
 
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