Award-winning First Nations Canadian artist Daphne Odjig (September 11, 1919 – October 1, 2016) was born and raised on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island (Lake Huron), Ontario, Canada. As a child, art was a favourite subject and she developed the habit of sketching with her grandfather and father who were both artistic.
In 1942, Odjig moved to Toronto with her sister Winnie where she worked at the John Inglis Munitions, Planters Peanuts and Dr. Ballards dog food factories. Over the next ten years, Odjig taught herself to paint by trial and error. In 1945, she moved to British Columbia and married Paul Somerville, a Mohawk/Metis Second World War veteran she met in Toronto. In 1948, their son Stanley was born.
Odjig continued her art explorations, experimenting in oils on homemade stretchers and recycled tent canvas. Influenced by Canadian painter Cornelius Krieghoff, she painted naturalistic landscapes. In 1950, Odjig discovered the work of Picasso and began experimenting with Cubism and Abstract Expressionism.
In 1958, Odjig and her family purchased a thirty-acre farm at Columbia Valley, British Columbia with a plan to grow strawberries. Despite her husband’s death in 1960, Odjig planted the crop as planned and continued to farm in the summer, focusing on painting in the winter months. In 1961, Odjig began a period of intense artistic experimentation. She learned by copying works in books borrowed from the library and by visits to the Vancouver Art Gallery to study painting techniques up close. Influenced by the Impressionists, Odjig experimented with light effects, broken brush strokes and Cloisonnism.
In 1967, Odjig had her first public solo exhibition at the Lakehead Art Centre in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The exhibition consisted of seventy-eight drawings, pastels and acrylics. By 1971, Odjig had moved to Winnipeg with her second husband Chester Beavon, where she opened a small craft store and taught at Manitou Art Foundation on Schreiber Island.
In 1973, Odjig co-founded the Professional Indian Artists Inc. (the Indian Group of Seven), a group of professional aboriginal artists who came together to promote their work and change the way the western art world looked at native art. In that same year, she was commissioned by the Royal Ontario Museum to create From Mother Earth Flows the River of Life for the Canadian Indian Art’74 exhibition.
“Odjig has a unique Native style blended with a modern graphic approach. Influenced by Northwest Coast art during her time in British Columbia and by the developing Anishinaabe style, her paintings focus on the importance of womanhood and sense of family. Central to her work is the circle, which to the Ojibwa signifies completion and perfection and is symbolic of women.”
Odjig has received numerous awards and honours including the first (and as of November 2009, the only) First Nation woman artist to show at the National Gallery of Canada, the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia, seven honorary degrees, the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Governor General’s Laureate for Visual and Media Arts, and the Expression Award from the National Film Board of Canada.