“The only true limitation is the one you set for yourself.” – Unknown
Spirit Guide, 2007, NFS
One question I'm often asked is 'How long have you been doing this?' and I never know how to answer that. I've been doing this since I was a child. But not like this, not exactly. So that's not the answer I usually give because I know the asker wants to know about my art now. But in all honesty, I have been making art and music since I was a tot and I have referenced my box of Crayola crayons in interviews many times because it was such a treasure to me. As for the real answer? Well, here it is:
After I dropped out of post secondary for music performance I moved back in with my parents on Rice Lake in Alderville. Once I was able to land a job and pay my own bills I rented a little house from the Band Council. That house is still there but it looks nothing like it did back then. Back then it was in the boonies surrounded by sumac. It was dark. There was no green mile. Anyone driving that way was either on their way home or on their way To Town. I drove it often at night, on my way home from my job, and most times I was the only car on the road.
I was still making music and in fact was playing more than ever and earning some money from it. But as rewarding as it is to perform it's also very stressful. I needed something to do for relaxation. This was when I mused to my Mom, who was still alive then, that maybe I should buy some paints. She immediately encouraged me to do so. You see, I had taken art classes all through high school in addition to my music classes. I wasn't a naturally gifted artist like some of my friends but I loved it. I loved the history, the architecture, and learning new techniques.
My very first "real" painting was of a yellow finch on masonite panel done in acrylic paint. I was proud of that painting and so I gave it to my Mom for Christmas that year as a teen. I continued to paint and although I never received stellar grades I took those classes because I really enjoyed them. As high school came to an end so did my painting. Not for any reason other than I was making music for hours a day and that's where my focus was.
Me, in Alderville
So, after college and moving back home, with my Mom's encouragement, I drove off to Curry's art store and bought my supplies. My house was small so I brought my easel outside onto the deck and painted there. The photo above is from that time.
I didn't know what to paint but I was living on the Rez and decided to try a quasi-Woodlands style as a way to begin. Pushing and blending that paint felt SO GOOD. It was meditative and internal. Like music, I could make something from nothing but there was absolutely no pressure involved. It was just for me. Eventually, family members handcrafted a giant easel for me (which I still have today) so that I could paint in the unfinished basement of my house all year long. As I continued painting I made the decision to stop imitating and begin to find my own style of mark making. If I was going to do this for me then it needed to come from me.
Transition, 2007, NFS
I never intended to sell my art. I never intended to have this as my profession. I fully intended to return to post secondary to pursue academia rather than the arts (something I still regret to this day). Life got in the way of that. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition during surgery and had years of illness; my cherished mother died suddenly, and I was in an abusive relationship. Let's face it, life happens and changes our course. That's ok because Creator had a plan for me that I wasn't aware of.
I kept painting for myself, for fun, for me. It got me through a terrible divorce, losing a child, and helped me find myself again. Somewhere along the way people asked to buy my paintings. So I began doing church basement art shows and farmer's markets then moved to outdoor art fairs, indoor art events, art galleries, magazines and podcasts. I'm not going to brag or list my accomplishments in this post because one of the 7 Grandfather Teachings is Dbaadendiziwin (humility). But I am proud of how I've grown as a self taught artist and I know there is much more to come. I feel like I'm just getting started - again.
I give you heartfelt thanks if you have stayed with me to the end of this rather long post.
To live in this world
Not a year I'd like to repeat.
It began extremely well with strong art sales and commissioned paintings. I was excitedly planning my next Thing, as I normally do in early winter. Most of my year is planned out by that time with some wiggle room for spontaneous projects. Then the news came sometime in the spring that my Dad was sick. A week later we learned it was terminal. Everything happened so suddenly that it was hard to adjust and I was a wreck. I finished up the art work I needed to complete and then cleared my calendar as much as possible. My family and I came up with plans for medical treatment, transportation to the hospital out of area, aids to help his quality of life, nursing and care team, end of life discussions. I booked camping nearby his house, as a sort of hotel room so that I could be there to help out.
I wasn't able to do enough. I wanted to do so much more.
The thing about grief is that it allows you to talk about love. Every visit, every phone call, every text, we spoke about the little things. Things like, the cardinals and the deer that I saw on my walks outside when Dad couldn't leave his bed anymore. Things like updates on his grandchildren, what we ate for dinner, how nice the weather was.
We also talked about the big things. What he wanted to do when it was time to die. How to celebrate and to honour him after death. That the Spirit World is beautiful and Mom was waiting for him there. Always, always we ended each talk with I Love You.
Not long after the Apple Route Studio Tour and just a few weeks after I seriously injured my ankle, Dad left this world. Expected and yet sudden after having returned to the land he loved in Alderville. I had a feeling he was waiting to be back home before leaving us. And that's what happened.
Here's what I learned from going through this (which was much different than how my mother died). It's the 'in between' that is the heart of life. Those insignificant every day moments are what bonds us. Sure, the big things are important and memorable too, but there's magic in the every day. Those are the stories. Those are the moments you giggle about years later. Those are the moments filled with the most love.
And so, my dear friends, I hope you have some grace for me and understand why I was inconsistent with my art updates last year. My soul's priority was to love, grieve, and everything in between.
This blog post was originally published by the Northumberland Festival Of The Arts in 2021 and consecutively published in 2022 by Devour: Art & Lit Canada, issue 013.
“Together in Solitude” (Oil on Canvas) by Jennifer Trefiak 2021
Merriam-Webster defines resilience as a noun that means: “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.”
That’s pretty heavy because the events that lead us to become resilient are not insignificant; these are life altering events such as death, job loss, discrimination, illness, abuse, and trauma. What’s interesting to me about resilience is that you don’t know if you are resilient until you’ve come through to the other side; it is a test of your endurance as a human being and a test of your spirit. Becoming resilient is a painful experience.
Just as you don’t know if you’re resilient until you’ve made it to the other side of adversity, you cannot celebrate resilience until you have healed from those moments that tested you. Some moments can never be celebrated at all, it’s enough to make it through alive.
For some of us, the past two years have been a blessing, and for others, it’s been a time of struggle. For the arts sector it has been both.
The arts became a shining light for the world to grasp onto during the frightening beginning of the pandemic when so much was unknown. We felt alone and so we attended virtual concerts, online art openings, and play readings. As artists we had endless time to create and to explore our inner worlds. The arts brought all of us solace and joy when we needed it the most.
The other side to that is that many artists have felt the financial and spiritual burden of the past two years. Those venues that we require to make music, display art, and read poetry have not been available until very recently. We too, have had to adjust ourselves to the virtual world, and for some artists and arts groups that has been difficult or impossible.
As for the spiritual burden, if you do not have an audience you do not have art. If your book isn’t being read, your song is not performed and your artwork not seen, then does the art really exist? Art exists only in relationship to the audience receiving it. At least, that’s what I believe. When we bring art to people there is an energy and a connection which emerges that simply doesn’t exist on a screen.
Slowly, we are gathering the pieces of ourselves and coming together. As we begin to move into public spaces once more, I dearly hope that the individuals who took pleasure and comfort in the arts from their living room couch will support us in person. I also hope that we as artists and arts institutions continue to make our work accessible to everyone.
Which brings me back to the topic at hand, resilience. When I find myself looking for answers I always look to Mother Earth. She speaks if you listen, and resilience is her middle name. When a forest burns there is a period of regeneration afterwards. In fact, many plant species require a fire in order to propagate and thrive. It’s a natural cycle of life and one which Indigenous cultures know well. A prescribed burn prevents widespread and destructive fires with a carefully curated one. Destruction creates resilience, regrowth, and beauty.
I believe that we as an arts community will move into a period of regrowth and beauty, like after a forest fire. Where resilience factors in is in how we move forward. Do we do the same as we’ve always done? Or do we take these teachings from this time period to enhance the experience of our shared love of all things beautiful and compelling? Once you burn you can’t forget. Those seedlings of creativity, so freely shared during the pandemic and carefully tended by those desiring them, will not forget their roots. Those lessons will structure our collective resilience and regrowth. They will guide us into the next phase of art creation and appreciation. Then, we can celebrate.
Jennifer Trefiak near Marathon, Ontario
I'm so excited to share the AGN Spotlight Series 3 with you. I encourage you to view them all but if you're short on time my mini doc begins at time mark 15:56.
Please let me know if you enjoyed it! If you have any questions drop them in the comments or send via email and I'll put together a Q&A (anonymously) in my next blog post.
Thank-you for sharing in my excitement, my process, and my art work.
I will keep you updated on my latest work and perhaps some insight into my creative process.