Saulteaux artist Robert Houle (b.1947) created this deeply emotional work after he read Ruth Teichroeb’s book Flowers on My Grave: How an Ojibwa Boy’s Death Helped Break the Silence on Child Abuse (1998), an account of the suicide of a boy victimized by multigenerational residential school violence on his reserve.
The book activated Houle’s memories of the Sandy Bay residential school. The work reflects the cultural tradition of telling—remembering, recounting, and recording a difficult experience as a path to healing. It functions as text in the absence of writing, as history in the absence of official account. Its narrative elements are a passage through memory that begins with two photographs as evidence and moves through a majestic resurrection in which the school’s ghostly form, in monochromatic tones of light grey and blue, seems to emerge from the landscape.
Sandy Bay consists of five parts, meant to be viewed from left to right, and morphs subtly from representation to abstraction. In a clouded area in the middle left section of the painting are words from a hymn that his mother used to sing to him and that would come to be used during family burials: “ON SAM KI KISEWATIS ANA MANITOWIYAN” (“Oh you are so kind and so treasured although you are god-like”).
This healing work exemplifies Houle’s approach and style of symbolically organizing every element. The artist’s calming brush balances the inner tempest, finding the quiet centre within each of us.
This Spotlight is excerpted from Robert Houle: Life & Work by Shirley Madill.