Where there’s smoke… Distinct smell of tanned hides in classroom provides Winnipeg bead artist with life-changing link to her great-grandmother, Norway House childhood

The familiar smell of smoke brought Cynthia Boehm right back to her childhood.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/07/2019 (1340 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The familiar smell of smoke brought Cynthia Boehm right back to her childhood.

She had just turned 50 and was taking a moccasin-making class in Winnipeg. The instructor, a woman by the name of Donna Glover, pulled a pair of beaded gauntlets out of her bag during a demonstration. The ornate mittens were made of hide that had been smoked during the tanning process and the tell-tale aroma was one Boehm knew well.

“It brought back a flood of memories,” she said. “My great-grandmother made all of our wares… a lot of that was with home smoke-tanned hides.”

Boehm is Cree from Norway House. Those childhood memories of her great-grandmother working with needle and thread to make traditional wrap-around moccasins decorated with intricate beadwork inspired her to learn the art form in adulthood. The nostalgia brought on by the smoky smell told her she was on the right path.

“I fell in love at that point, I went at it very hard I wanted to learn all of the old styles. To me, that was important.”

She has been working full time as a beadwork artist for the last three years. To get a deeper understanding of beading, Boehm took any and every workshop she could and sought instruction from elders in Thompson and Norway House.

“A lot of what I’ve learned took a lot of searching out and I’m still searching to find people who will teach me different things,” she said. “My most valued teachings (are from) working with the elders. I just go and visit and we bead together and the beauty of that is the stories they share.”

She even got the chance to learn from an elder who died when Boehm was 18 years old — her great-grandmother, Jane Mary Sinclair.

There was an understanding in Boehm’s family that some of Sinclair’s work had been donated to the Manitoba Museum, although no one had ever gone to see it. While taking a beading workshop at the museum, Boehm asked Maureen Matthews, the curator of cultural anthropology, what she knew about the collection.

“It took a couple of months and then finally I was able to figure out which one was her great-grandmother’s,” Matthews said. “The beadings that are associated with (Jane) Mary Sinclair were donated by a missionary years ago.”

Of the thousands of pieces of beadwork in the museum’s vault, nine items — a jacket, doll, wall pocket, mukluks, gauntlets, suspenders and moccasin vamps — were made by Sinclair. The donations had been purchased by a man named Rev. Allan Cheales during a trip up to Norway House.

Boehm spent two days at the museum taking notes, drawing and photographing her great-grandmother’s handiwork.

“When I picked this up I had no idea I would have the opportunity to learn from my (great-) grandmother,” Boehm said. “I felt like she was with me (and) I felt her presence, I cried… I was so thankful that the purchaser valued her work and valued beadwork and the traditions and donated them to the museum.”

She plans to try to replicate a pair of gauntlets in the collection.

This isn’t the first time a beadwork artist has visited the museum to learn more about their family history. Matthews refers to this as “skills repatriation” and she hopes it becomes a regular occurrence.

“It’s that capacity to really learn something from (the beadwork), and Mary Sinclair’s collection is like that because Cynthia is interested — that’s why it’s valuable,” Matthews said. “That’s the victory, when the museum doesn’t have the last or the best, but that Indigenous people still have the power to create.”

Boehm’s connection with her great-grandmother is documented in an award-winning piece of beadwork art on display at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery at 600 Shaftesbury Blvd.

The brightly coloured old-style floral wall hanging, titled é-tatahamiskaman ki-kohkomináwak kayás oti isihcikéwinwáw / My Journey Home — Honouring our Grandmothers, won first place in this year’s open-juried competition and exhibition held by the Manitoba Society of Artists. The show is on at the gallery until Sept. 14.

Winning the MSA competition is an affirmation for Boehm, whose goal is to see more beadwork on display in art galleries, and more widely recognized as an art form, rather than a craft.

“This is provincial-level and my only hope was that my piece would be accepted to be in the art show. I didn’t expect to win, I’m grateful and humbled and I feel very proud that beadwork is in a gallery,” she said.

It took Boehm two weeks working from morning to night to complete the submission.

She works out of her home in St. Andrews and uses traditional materials as much as possible in her work, sourcing tiny glass beads, porcupine quills and animal hides from independent producers and native craft stores.

The swirling floral designs she specializes in come from visions or dreams and many are inspired by nature and her childhood; every piece she makes includes shades of blue, an homage to growing up along the Nelson River and memories of fishing with her father and picking berries with her mother.

Beading is a labour of love that requires a lot of patience. For Boehm, the biggest indicator of how a project will turn out is the state of mind she is in while working.

“I’m thinking of the past, the present the future,” she said. “If my thoughts become negative I go away from it because it reflects in my work.”

In just three years, Boehm has gone from a novice beader to a recognized artist and teacher. Starting next month, her work will be available in the Winnipeg Art Gallery gift shop and she is a regular contributor to Manitobah Mukluks’ Storyboot Project.

“I made some changes in my lifestyle at 50 and I wanted to do something that would help me find myself. And I couldn’t be more content today with what I’m doing.”


Twitter: @evawasney

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Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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