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Indigenous Artist Spotlight Series

Get to know: Jessica Sanderson-Barry

By Elaine Alexie, Former Curator, Indigenous Studies

June 23, 2021

To continue our celebration of Indigenous History Month, we are launching our new series of Indigenous Artist Talks. The series showcases Indigenous artists from across Alberta, and we learn what inspires them, how they got started, and how they incorporate traditional teachings into contemporary artworks.

To begin this series, we start in Amiskwaciwâskahikan with Nêhiyaw-iskwêw artist Jessica Sanderson-Barry, of JShine Designs. On June 28, 2021, we were pleased to host a virtual talk with Jessica on the topic of revival and resurgence of beadwork and hide tanning practices. Jessica will share how these art forms are important cultural traditions that are integral to her artistic practice.

Can you tell us about yourself and where you are from?
My name is Jess Sanderson-Barry, a nêhiyaw-iskwêw and mother from Chakastaypasin Band, Treaty Six Territory. I am currently a full-time Cree Artist residing in Edmonton, Alberta. My art practice embodies beadwork and hide tanning. 

How did you start your art making journey? Is there a significant moment that sparked it?

Jessica Sanderson-Barry

I’ve always had a connection with beads, and I recall picking up my first beading needle in high school. Since then, I’ve been learning different beadwork techniques from different knowledge keepers, and in some cases I would sit and teach myself. Beadwork has always been a part of who I am and where I come from. Beading grounds me. I feel the calmness and I truly believe it brings me the healing I need. I felt in order to fully immerse myself in my art practice, I needed to leave my full-time accounting job. I felt I needed to slow down my life and focus on creating more art. I had a strong circle of family and friends who encouraged me to pursue being an artist full time. I resigned from my full-time job in July 2020 and this was when I was able to focus my time being out on the land, tanning hide, building relations with one another. Since leaving my professional career, more opportunities with hide tanning started happening and I was able to be in a creative space where there were no limitations on time. I was able to focus on my art practice and completely slow down my life.

Was there a project that challenged you and provided a valuable teaching moment?  
My graduation from University of Alberta with the Facility of Native Studies was in June 2019, I wanted to have a piece that represented my Matriarchs and somehow incorporate this into my attire. I had a picture of my Chapan’s moccasins and I wanted to make an embroidery medallion with this pattern onto a piece of hide. This challenged me in so many ways, one day before my graduation I wanted to give up on replicating this pattern. I felt defeated and felt like I couldn’t get it done on time. I already put so much good energy and care into this medallion and I was not quite at where I was supposed to be. My husband encouraged me to keep going and he reminded me that I’ve come so far using embroidery, keeping in mind this was the first time I ever tried this art practice and I just had a few more flowers to complete. As I was holding this piece in my hands, I realized I can’t give up, I can only do my best and if it’s not perfect… I am okay with that. I recall finishing the final touches one hour before my graduation ceremony. I wore that medallion with pride, in honour of all my relatives, especially for my Chapan who once walked with that very same pattern.

What do you enjoy the most about hide tanning? What has this practice taught you?  
The most enjoyable part about hide tanning is the feeling of relationship, the feeling of bringing community together and working on revitalizing this traditional practice with my own kin.

Over the past few years, we are seeing a revival in hide tanning practices in areas both urban and rural. In this light, what has hide tanning as a practice and experience brought to you, as a nêhiyaw-iskwêw?  
Hide tanning is rooted in who I am as a nêhiyaw-iskwêw. This practice was once done by my late Great Grandmother and my late Grandfather. I never had a chance to meet my late Great Grandmother Jenny and I only knew my late Grandfather George for six years of my life. Every time I tan hides, I feel my blood memory come through me, and tanning hides is home for me. The transmission of knowledge I am learning from my mentors, I am now able to bring this knowledge home, sit with my family and tan hides in an urban setting. The land is everywhere we go and I learned to use the land in my backyard in the way I know how. I am able to tan hides, indigenize this space and revitalize this practice within my own family kin. 

What drives your work? How do your teachings/traditions that inform what you do? 
I use traditionally tanned hides in most of my art. It is important for me to have a relationship with the moswa (the moose), the elk, and the deer. It was important to know how to properly harvest these animals, how to put in the proper care and protocol when working with our relatives. Understanding the fundamental practices when traditionally tanning hides. I have so much to learn and by any means I am not experienced. I am a beginner hide tanner and I have so much to learn. What drives my work is my passion for hide tanning and being able to revitalize this practice and bring it back home to our family kin, so they too can learn the process and have that connection to our late relatives. 

What advice would you give for other Indigenous people wanting to learn beading and sewing?  
Reach out to our bead community, build relationships, and reach out to the ones who have been doing this for a long time. I’ve been taught by some amazing knowledge keepers, such as late Hilda Saddleback, Jennine Krauchi and Carmen Miller. There are some pretty amazing bead workshops online as well. If you’re just starting beading or sewing, the more you practice the finer your lines will be. Do not get discouraged if your beaded piece is not the way you envisioned it, keep going and remember not to be hard on yourself, be gentle, and be kind to yourself. 

What message would you like to share with non-Indigenous members interested in your work and art?
My art is for everyone to wear. My art can be purchased online through my website. I am currently working on relaunching my website and the next online sale will be summer 2021. For updates and exact date of next sale, please follow my handle on Instagram @JShineDesigns 

What is next for JShine Designs?
Right now, my focus is on hide tanning and its summer time, which means more hide camps. Where will my art take me next? I would like to create bigger art pieces and expand not only beading jewellry, but doing more with traditional hides. I have so many ideas, it’s finding the time to focus on carrying out those dreams.