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Drawing away the pain, the terror

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Robert Houle is an internationally distinguished artist with works in the National Gallery of Canada and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

But it took 50 years before a transformative process of art-making allowed him to remember and release a long-buried trauma.

In 2009, after attending a funeral on his home reserve -- Manitoba's Sandy Bay First Nation -- the Anishnabe Saulteaux artist returned to his Toronto home deeply troubled. He decided to try to unlock feelings of shame that had been gnawing at him for a decade.

In an intense one-month process, Houle poured out 24 oilstick drawings while speaking to himself in his Anishnabe mother tongue. They gradually, intuitively revealed to him, through sensations in his body rather than his mind, the truth he had blocked out: He had been physically and sexually abused by Catholic priests as a boy at Sandy Bay Indian Residential School.

"I relived it," recalls the soft-spoken Houle, 65. "They start out by beating you up (before a sexual assault).... I had been angry for all those years.... After a month, I was a basket case. Then I wanted to express something positive -- that I've survived."

Houle has never shown the haunting drawings and the colourful, celebratory abstract paintings he did as a follow-up, until now. The just-opened solo exhibition Robert Houle: enuhmo andúhyaun (the road home) launches a series of shows by accomplished alumni and former faculty members to be held at the University of Manitoba's new School of Art Gallery.

Houle, a 1972 U of M graduate in art history, says it means a great deal that he is making the works public for the first time in his home province. His 12 surviving siblings (he is the eldest of 15 children) were all expected to attend the opening.

He has dedicated the show to his deceased mother, also a residential school survivor, who was never able to tell her story.

In the drawings, which have pencilled captions such as "night predator" and "I'm cornered," Christian crosses and small iron beds recur. The pious abusers are dark, faceless, blurry forms, often with exaggerated hands. One priest operated a candy store in the church basement and would paw at the boys when they bought treats.

The last drawing refers to a priest Houle adored, who taught him to swim. Just recently, in yet another betrayal, he learned from other survivors that this leader was also a predator.

The gentle grey-haired artist doesn't want the "guilt money" offered in compensation to residential school survivors. "The bottom line is there's no price to my suffering," he says.

He has also chosen not to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the official collector of testimony about the horrors of abuse. The TRC is based, he says, on "an imposed Judeo-Christian concept of forgiveness."

The Anishnabe term he finds meaningful is "pagedenaun." Written on one of the paintings, it roughly translates as "let it go from your mind."

As Toronto curator David McIntosh writes in the brochure that accompanies the show, "Pagedenaun is a self-defining and self-determining act, while forgiveness is an act of submission to the will of others."

Houle says he has let go of the pain, victimization and dark memories. Making the drawings, he says, "was a form of de-colonizing myself." He is at peace and wants to celebrate moving forward.

"I'm much stronger now," he says. "I used to hate being an artist, because artists feel so many things. They're so sensitive. But something good comes out of it."

State of the art

-- The University of Manitoba's gleaming new Art Research Technology Laboratory (ARTlab) building opened in February, just east of the old Taché Hall residence on Dafoe Road, which is being converted into an arts centre.

-- The four-storey, 70,000-square-foot, environmentally green ARTlab includes light-filled studios, cutting-edge equipment for digital art creation and a soundstage for film, photography and audio production. Its "wow" factor is so great that some students who had dropped out have returned this fall to finish their degrees, says Paul Hess, director of the 400-student School of Art.

-- The main-floor School of Art Gallery that replaces the cramped Gallery One One One is more than triple its size and has a 16-foot ceiling. It's built to the same international standards for security and climate control as the Winnipeg Art Gallery and has a secondary space for rotating shows from the 4,000-piece U of M collection. Mary Reid is its first full-time curator/director.

-- Reid has not yet announced the artists who will follow Robert Houle in a series showcasing former U of M students and instructors. She says she is working on shows by Sheila Butler and photographer Laura Letinsky for sometime in the next two years.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 G3

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