Life as Art and Art as Life

Clay Draft

To say that Lionel Peyachew is a prolific artist might be an understatement.

Lionel Peyachew has a number of pieces installed around Saskatchewan, but says the most important piece of art is the one that commemorates Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) which will be unveiled at the Saskatoon police station this fall (2016).

An artist since high school, Lionel received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Lethbridge and his master’s degree from the University of Calgary. After university, he taught as a sessional at the U of C before applying for a full-time position at the First Nations University of Canada, where he started teaching on July 1st, 2005.

Lionel works in many mediums including sculptures, paintings, and traditional pieces that use beading and quill work.

“A sculptor is basically where I’m concentrating most of my work,” he says.

Buffalo Coke Bottle
Buffalo Coke Bottle

The size of his sculptures can vary dramatically. One of the smallest was a piece he did on commission for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. To represent Canada’s history, Coca Cola sponsored the creation of 15 unique bottle designs that demonstrated the history of the provinces and territories.

Being from the plains, Lionel wrapped buffalo hide around a coke bottle and added a design of circling buffalo.

One of his larger sculptures is “Counting Coup,” a piece set up out front the Painted Hand Casino in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.

The piece depicts two First Nations men on horseback, participating in the game, Counting Coup, the objective of which was to touch the opponent with the hand or coup stick and escape unharmed. The statue is 12-feet-tall and cast in bronze.

Lionel’s only other work outside Saskatchewan could be a commission in Edmonton, where he’s been shortlisted to design a piece for Alex Decoteau Park. Taking from Alex Decoteau’s history as an Olympic runner, who enlisted and lost his life in the First World War, he plans to have the man running through a finish line, holding an eagle feather.

This is generally an honour in aboriginal culture for those who have fought in war, so even in death Lionel says he wants to “give it [the feather] to him.”

Lionel says some of his public art is connected to where it is displayed.

“It could be site specific to the area, which means something that relates to an area, through the history or what goes on in that area now,” says Lionel.

For example, ‘The Four Directions’ sculpture by Wascana Lake in Regina reflects the meaning of the grouping of four in Plains Aboriginal culture, like the four cardinal points on the compass.

His current commission for the Saskatoon police, for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, has a design model, called a maquette. This is a design he completed after several draft copies moulded from clay.

Clay Draft
Clay Draft

As of yet, a full size version is being created, before it’s set to be cast in metal at a foundry in Pense, Saskatchewan. The cloud that the dancing woman stands on will be made from resin, the body of the woman herself will be constructed in bronze and the wings from powder-coated aluminum. The piece will stand at a little less than nine feet in height from the ground to the top of the woman’s head.

Lionel explains that the inspiration for the sculpture came from reading the stories behind the cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. There was one particular story that really sparked his interest and inspired the concept for the overall design of the piece.

A mother, whose daughter had gone missing, reflected on her daughter’s fancy shawl dancing in the powwow.

“She described her daughter as someone who reminded her of an eagle in flight, who was so light on her feet it was so much like dancing on a cloud,” says Lionel. “That really struck an idea for me”.

The sculpture is a woman, with the wings of an eagle, dancing on a cloud. As for the design on the wings, Lionel describes that the butterflies represent “the idea of freedom, there’s a centre figure there which is a tree, a tree of life, the flowers to signify the females all mothers, daughters they all like flowers.”

Lionel, who has three daughters, says his connection to MMIW stems not only from his three daughters, who he states “understand what’s going on with missing and murdered indigenous woman,” but also from his time at the University of Calgary.

He lived with two roommates, a couple, and both Lionel’s best friends.

One day Lionel says “his roommate’s girlfriend and one of my best friends went missing, missing from, like she went to work and never came back.” Even after contacting the authorities “she was nowhere to be found for a good two years,” says Lionel. In the end her body was found just west of Calgary.

On the whole, Peyachew has this to say on the issue of MMIW “it’s been a long wait to have this inquiry to the missing and murdered aboriginal woman, and I believe, I truly believe Saskatoon being the first to acknowledge the missing and murdered aboriginal woman of Canada, that maybe this will be the starting point of having other police departments in Canada start to recognize that we need some kind of inquiry, into how many native woman go missing in a country like Canada and everywhere else in that matter not only in Canada but the United States and even in Europe.”

by Connor Donaldson