Margaret Robinson is a Mi'kmaw, bisexual, Two-Spirit writer based in Halifax. She writes fiction, poetry, and a little bit of creative writing. Robinson is also known to have dabbled in sculpture, drawing, painting, sewing, and quillwork.
Interpretations of their own teachings and opinions shared here are the responsibility of each artist.
Written transcript is below.
"There's a certain fluidity about the ocean and the way it interacts with hard substances like rock and wood that I think I try to capture in my drawing, but you can never fully capture. Like the sense that things are moving, even if what you are doing is representing a still moment of that, trying to get the life, the liveliness of, of water in work, I think that's, that's probably always there."
Interview with Margaret Robinson for Kindling
Margaret Robinson: So my name is Margaret Robinson, I'm 46, my Indigenous identity is Mi'kmaw or L'nu, meaning the People. My gender identity for a long, long, long, long time. It was just woman, cis gender woman. And then I found the word Two Spirit and wasn't really sure how I was going to relate to it. But lately I've been finding that Two Spirit woman feels more accurate in terms of capturing some things that woman just didn't quite pull up for me.
And then sexual identity, bisexual was my first coming out identity, and then queer, and then Two Spirit. And then I guess there are like peripheral identities that I could see myself falling under if I was filling out a survey or something. Like I could see checking polysexual, though, I don't actually use it in daily life or like use it to identify myself to other people. But I would see myself as falling into that category. Or sometimes people use plurasexual, and science categories and stuff. So it's like, I acknowledge that that's applied to me, but it's not really one of mine. And then I'm located in Halifax.
Louis Esmé: Great, thanks. So the next section's talking about artistic expression and I'm wondering what is your main method or do you have multiple methods for artistic expression?
Margaret Robinson: I mean, writing. My main methods of artistic expression is in writing. So I do fiction, poetry, a little bit of creative writing stuff. But I, I'm sort of a dilettante. I have a lot of things that I've done a bunch of times but don't do on a regular basis. So I like to sculpt, I draw, I can paint, I do sewing, I have done some quillwork, I guess, depending on how broadly count artistic expression. I've done some acting. I'm really willing to give my hand, like throw in on anything, I'll give it anything a shot. But in terms of what I feel competent at, in terms of more artistic visual stuff, sculpting and drawing. In terms of writing, mostly fiction writing, but also a little bit of poetry. So, it's a little bit all over the place. Now that I have a job that includes that would allow me to do some writing as part of my paid work, then I'm looking forward to that changing a little bit this coming summer.
Louis Esmé: So why are these methods important to you?
Margaret Robinson: Oh, gosh, well, I think each different artistic activity can draw you out in different ways. So I was surprised at how physical sculpting was, for instance, how much it made me think about myself not just as a two dimensional image, but as a three dimensional person in space. Whereas writing I found was really cerebral. It was about projecting my own self into the identity and experiences of an imaginary character and figuring out what would inhabiting their world, as them, be like? How would they feel? How would they think? How would they talk? That's a very different experience for me. Whereas when I'm doing something like quillwork or sewing, it's a lot more of a melding together of my planning brain. Which like sort of right side thinking about steps, what's next, thinking about the equipment, about the material, about the history, but then also feeling the material and figuring out how does this feel like it wants me to use it. So it's more of a relationship with the material rather than trying to create my vision, you know what I mean?
Louis Esmé: Mhmm. What about writing?
Margaret Robinson: Oh, gosh. Writing can feel so escapist sometimes. It's... I can just lose hours to it. So with the right kind of, if I can get in the zone with it, then I think it's important to me, in part because I always saw myself as a writer. One of the first things I did as a kid was make little books to entertain myself. And both my parents had written, so my mom had done journalism for a really long time, but she also did a bit of creative writing. Dad did creative writing and also journalism and also had written a book. My mom wrote a romance novel when I was a teen. So seeing them do writing I think kind of, established a pretty firmly in my head is this is a thing people do and it made it seem achievable and plausible. So I, I've been doing that the longest, I think, of all the kind of artistic expression things I do. So it's the one I'm most comfortable with.
Louis Esmé: Mm hmm. Is there a specific piece of work that you've written or created, sculpturally, that you're most proud of and why?
Margaret Robinson: I think in terms of what I'm proud of. Well, I've done some short stories that I felt like that was a nice, solid, well crafted piece and so I'm happy with those. But when I think of the pieces that I, I feel most vehemently about in terms of pride, I made a lifestyle size statue of Sappho for the Dyke March one time they were doing a float about historical queer women. And so I made this big Sappho. And the first piece I tried, it was a total failure. It was it was not human shape (laughs). It was just disastrous. And so I had to problem solve and figure out, okay, how do you make a sculpture of a person that's supposed to be vaguely realistic and, and redid it and it came out so much better. And that's the first time I really got into that, I call it The Zone, but I read some theory about it where they talk this autoletic activity. It's this moment where you feel completely integrated as a person and time and other concerns drop away and you might not even notice that you haven't eaten, or that you haven't gone to the washroom, or hours and hours have passed. I just zoned right in on that and spent hours building this life size statue. And it was fun. It was interesting. I love the material of working with papier mâché. That's the one I was most happy with.
Margaret Robinson: I also made a tiny sculpture of a kitsune for a friend's birthday, tiny little plaster sculpture, and that turned out amazingly well, like way beyond what I'm actually capable of. It was just sort of a random one off. It's not representative of my actual sculpting ability at all because it was way better than I can normally do. So I was pretty pleased with that (laughs).
Louis Esmé: Oh, that's really cool. Would you try it again?
Margaret Robinson: Oh, yeah. My dad taught me how to do, like do a sculpture in, like a plasticine essentially, and then cover it with liquid rubber, and then cast in plaster. And so I would do all of these kind of things. This was something he had learnt working at a dental lab back in the 1960s. And so we had the equipment and we had the material around, so I learnt how to do it. And so I had done that for this kitsune sculpture. Sculpted it first in the clay and then the liquid rubber and then cast it in plaster, but then when the plaster was still wet, I added more detail with a variety of tiny little pieces of metal equipment that I had picked up here and there. And that worked really well because the plaster was still malleable. You could get a lot of like fine fur detail and stuff into the, into the sculpture while it was still drying. And that was my favourite part of it. Like learning about the material and how it can be worked and what you can do with it, I quite like that.
Louis Esmé: I mean, I'm also just surprised I've never heard you talk about this, but that's really cool!
Margaret Robinson: I know, right?
Margaret Robinson: Like, I've also had to go really bad, so one time I tried to make a big sculpture. I wanted like a bookend, and so I did this female nude. But I didn't realize that the bigger the sculpture is, the more the rubber will stretch. And so because I didn't think of the times like this should be supported in the bucket of sand, I just filled the rubber mould with the plaster and the weight of the plaster expanded the rubber mould. And when I took her out, she was all twisted and like her face was bulging in different weird places, and it was all really strange. And I was like, what the hell am I going to do with this messed up sculpture? So I ended up painting her like in a really sad blue colour and I just think of her as like a representative of depression, like your own body has been twisted out of shape by these feelings that you can't contain.
Louis Esmé: Oh (laughs)
Margaret Robinson: (laughs) Yeah, like happy accident, but good lesson learned about the limits of the plastic casting!
Louis Esmé: Yeah, no kidding, hey. So maybe on that note, which artists or art movements have you been influenced by? It could also be your dad, but...
Margaret Robinson: You know, I this a fascinating question because I had never thought about it before. But when I started thinking, like, okay, so think about particular pieces and like, what am I trying to draw on in my mind to think like this, does this suck, or is this good? I think, I think first and foremost, my dad, so a lot of doing art is probably about interacting with that relationship in a way that doesn't require me to interact with the person he really is (laughs), but like the person he was and the artwork he did. But I think growing up, I always loved Walter Foster books and I mean, they were everywhere in the 70s, of like how to draw a horse, draw, how to cartoon. And so I would be so excited to get some of these.
Margaret Robinson: My uncle had gone to art school, and so occasionally he would send us these art school books and, and then seeing, growing up and seeing like comics. So Mad magazine, some of the Robert Crumb stuff kind of introduced me to the idea that art could be political, that there could be like a sort of... and I think in their work it was like 60s oppositional anti-man critique. But I loved the idea. Even if I didn't love necessarily what they were doing with the art or particularly, like their gender stuff was all messed up, and the race stuff was all messed up. But the political eye and using art to kind of share your perspective with people. I think that was really influential for me.
And then Mi'kmaq petroglyph work. Some of the line drawing there I find really intriguing. If you talk like art movements, I think maybe some of the propaganda art, some of the pop art, a lot of that overlaps. And then I don't know if you remember this growing up, but CBC used to have this thing, the Canada Vignette? Which was like all these line drawings of people's faces morphing into each other. It was creepy as hell, but it really got me. I used to watch it constantly when it was on and it was this sort of fascinating examination of how you can go from a still line drawing into animation, and so that kind of history of Canadian animation was influential for me. So things like the Big Snit, (unclear) that came out in like the I guess early 80s maybe?
Like rock and roll, there had been like this big movement of Canadian animated art, probably all government funded, but they don't really seem to do it anymore. But Devil and Daniel Mouse, stuff like that, I found that has influenced my work.
Louis Esmé: So how does the land and water where you're from influenced your work?
Margaret Robinson: I never really thought about what my interaction with land and water was until I moved away, because then suddenly it was gone or different, and so noticing that absence helped me kind of see the big role it had really played in shaping what feels normal or right to my brain. So I think there's a certain fluidity about the ocean and the way it interacts with hard substances like rock and wood that I think I try to capture in my drawing, but you can never fully capture. Like the sense that things are moving, even if what you are doing is representing a still moment of that, trying to get the life, the liveliness of, of water in work, I think that's, that's probably always there.
Margaret Robinson: And I think, of course, methodologically, like I use material from the land quite a lot, so if you're using something that's more traditionally Indigenous material, if you're making a quill work basket or doing something with birch bark, for instance, there are certain things about the way the material grew and knowing that helps you work with the material. But then you can quite easily discover quite a lot of it, just sort of trial and error with it. Interacting with it seems like what works, what doesn't. I think that's kind of the fun of it. And then taking that lesson and using it to interact more with the environment around you. So knowing how birch bark works when you're doing an art project makes me look at the trees that are around my house a little differently and, having tried to use material that didn't work out so well, also creates sort of evarts, the material you see all around you and like a history of stuff you've done.
Louis Esmé: How did your gender identity and or sexual orientation, also knowing that these aren't L'nu concepts necessarily, right? But using these terms to understand sexuality and gender, how did they influence your early years and how does that currently influence your work?
Margaret Robinson: (laughs) I drew a lot of naked women!
Louis Esmé: (laughs)
Margaret Robinson: There's been a lot of nudity in my work, particularly early work, because the internet changed everything. But back in the old days, it was hard to get pictures of naked people. So I think drawing was sometimes a way to explore what is it about other people's bodies I find interesting and how might they fit together in different ways. And so I think some of that has definitely come through in my work. Like when I draw posters, or if I have to represent someone for a, for an image or something, it... My first instinct is often to highlight the sexual or the highly gendered about them, and so sometimes, if that's not the purpose of the poster, I have to, like, rein that in a bit and be like, okay, this is not meant to be all tits and ass here.
Louis Esmé: (laughs).
Margaret Robinson: Focus, focus on something, woman! So I think there was a certain element of using art initially as part of my own queer exploration of the world and sometimes back and forth too, like so, you know, I would make art and kind of put it in the world, but I would also be drawn to art that had those elements in it.
Louis Esmé: What role did art play in your, in your childhood, your youth, and how has that influenced your work?
Margaret Robinson: I guess all the stuff my dad did, I would classify as like survival art. So like, things he didspecifically to make a living. So I think that taught me that art can be a way to get money, but it can also be... Like it doesn't have to be perfect. It... So I remember one time he ran out of material. He had this contract to make a bunch of birch bark baskets and he was getting like, oh gosh, like not even like an eighth of what they were selling for. But he had this contract to get them done and he ran out of birch bark, and so he started prioritizing where the birch bark went and he knew the people buying them were sort of like settlers just looking to get something Indian. And he, he used the toilet paper roll tube.
Louis Esmé: (laughs).
Margaret Robinson: As the support for the interior of the thing. And I just remember he thought it was hilarious. And I just remember thinking some rich, white person is going to have this really pretty birch bark basket in their display case or on their mantel and inside it is like the toilet paper roll tube from our crappy shack that has no running water. Like, it just struck me as, there's art you make because you love art and you want to do art. And it just, there's something in you that bubbles up and out. And then there's art you do for other people. And so, that kind of, seeing that difference and seeing that he rarely ever got to do art that was for him, it was always with an eye trying to market it. I think in a lot of ways maybe that turned me off seeing art as a thing I wanted to do for money and maybe wanting to prioritize more of the emotional element to it.
Louis Esmé: I feel like that is so like Mi'kmaw and awesome (laughs).
Margaret Robinson: (laughs) I know right? It's like, somewhere out there in the world is.
Louis Esmé: Yeah, just work with what you got hey?
Margaret Robinson: Yeah, right?
Louis Esmé: Yeah. So how does the generation that you grew up influence your ideas about work?
Margaret Robinson: Oh, so I'm generation X, I was born in 1973, so I'm toward the end of Generation X and we're the people who followed up the baby boomers were like, the kids of baby boomers. And so we don't tend to trust the government because we're all post Nixon, post Vietnam generation. So there's a certain anti-establishment, individual heightened, not trusting a collective element of the generation that I am, but my perception of our generation anyway. Sort of a lot of do it yourself stuff where, because things weren't really oriented toward us, except in terms of... So there it seemed like there were a lot of programs designed to fix something that our parents' generation perceived as wrong with us. And people, you know, don't want to get told there's something wrong with them. So I don't think my generation of people really responded well to that, and so we tended to opt out of a lot of stuff and come up with our own alternatives. In some ways, like actually just sort of mimicking the baby boomers, but mimicking like the more fringe element of their generation. So, like, kind of hippie stuff or or, you know, tune in, turn on drop off kind of approach.
But the difference I see between, like me and the hippie crowd is our generation had technology, and so technology forms a big piece of how we get information, how we assess ideas, how we even make art. So there's a certain flexibility, like you can do it old skool, if the power goes out or if you want to do it that way. But you can also, you know... Code an HTML, or maybe you can use particular painting programs, or. I know I've been using word processing since pretty much the dawn of word processing because my mom had to do it for work. So she tended to have work related equipment around. And so I got to learn how all of those things worked. And it's a different animal, like writing longhand versus typing it up.
Margaret Robinson: But I think we also grew up seeing dramatic social change. So like, fall of the Berlin Wall, end of Apartheid, rise of Christian conservatism in the states. And so there's the sense that change is possible, but we're also really cynical because we see not only great things happen, but really shitty things happen, really quickly, and the sense that things can constantly disappear in a minute. So it's hard to get attached to stuff. So I never feel like when I make an art piece, oh, this will last forever and inspire people for generations to come. No, if it dissolves in the rain tomorrow, it's not that big a deal. Like I try not to get too attached to that myth of progress. Like things aren't always going to get better.
Louis Esmé: Mm hmm.
Margaret Robinson: So I think that's probably some of the stuff that solidly nails me into the middle of Generation X.
Louis Esmé: What aspects of your Indigenous identity influenced your art practice?
Margaret Robinson: Definitely the political and the social element. Seeing myself as kind of an outsider to a lot of the mainstream, and not even necessarily wanting to participate in some of the mainstream stuff, like. So I see there's a lot of competition, for instance, competition for grants, competition for spots, for awards. I don't care about any of that. I'm just not a very competitive person that way. And I think that's kind of a Indigenous element. Like I see that in a lot of the students that I mentor at the university, they don't put themselves forward for awards. It's not really the done thing. They're kind of like, oh, I'm so special, please give all your attention to me. It's... I think more about how can this capture something that's important to an experience more of us are having, or something that speaks back to misrepresentation, or I think there's even sort of an aggressiveness about some of the work I do that's a little of, not nice. Like it's, I guess it's that outsider viewpoint of like sometimes it's just like a, fuck you! Fuck y'all!
Louis Esmé: (laughs).
Margaret Robinson: There can be a sort of a, a positive element of getting, having been excluded, particularly being excluded from things that you don't really think of that valuable in the first place. So I think the Indigenous identity, it gives me the ability to opt out, but not into a space where I'm wondering like, okay, so if I'm not doing this mainstream competitive thing, I'm lost in the nowhere. It shows me a whole history of ancestors who have been not part of that. So I think it, it helps knowing that there's an alternative, that there's a Somewhere Else and that it's just as interesting and fun as what other people pretend is the whole world.
Louis Esmé: What cultural teachings around gender and sexuality do you feel comfortable sharing and how do they relate to your art practice?
Margaret Robinson: I guess it depends on what you think of it as like cultural teachings. So I picked up some things that seem more like the flavour of how stuff gets done. So things like patience. So growing up poor, I always have to sort of drive to pay the bills, get better, make more money, blah, blah, blah. So there was sort of a fairly settler-ish drive to me that didn't really mesh well with Indigenous cultural tendencies to wait and see. And so learning patience, learning humility. Those are things I learned through Two Spirit community. Through realising that sometimes pushing doesn't make the answer come faster, that sometimes pushing ruins the piece you're working on. That sometimes pushing ruins the relationship you're trying to develop, and thinking about it more like, in terms of the way I've seen particular people who were influential for me live and practice their life.
So like, when my grandmother would encounter an animal that was frightened, or hurt, or neglected, she didn't just rush in and start picking at it. She would wait and let it come to her, and let it decide how it was going to interact with her. And eventually they would let her groom the hell out of them. And I remember she found this wild cat, feral in the woods, and within like half a day it was sitting in her lap, all brushed out and fluffy, and she even had to like... We thought he had extra legs initially because he had so much matted fur. But that kind of patience, seeing someone put the time in to build a relationship and just not even with an agenda about it to just see where it goes. I think that's, that's been a cultural teaching about, particularly about sexuality, the importance of the sensual, not just the sexual.
I'm still learning it and still figuring out how it can play out in my life. But it, it's something that's always stuck with me. I remember my grandmother said one time, like I thought she was being homophobic, but she said, why do people always have to focus on sex? What about just, you know, holding hands and being together? And at first I thought, oh, what a square attitude. But I think she was talking about the sensual rather than the sexual. The sexual seems to me to be more about goals, achieving something. Whereas, the sensual seems exploratory, and so I think that that's, that patience to be exploratory is kind of a teaching.
Louis Esmé: Hmm, wela'lin, yeah. How does your own gender identity and sexual orientation influence your art?
Margaret Robinson: I guess it gives me a focus for some of the anger, like I remember some of the issues Little Sister's was having in the late 90s and the 2000s about censorship. And even earlier than that, as a kid in the 80s, I remember the Parents Music Resource Centre trying to prevent people from selling particular music groups to the work of particular artists because they didn't like what they were saying. And I was so angry about censorship that that kind of shaped a lot of my political perspective. So, so when everybody around me was all excited about Al Gore, and talking about the environment, and isn't it amazing, isn't he incredible? And I was like, well, are you familiar with the work of his wife, Tipper, who did this PMRC material? And I just said it really stuck with me that the government will try to control art. And so it just
made me so furious. So I think a lot of my artwork has been intentionally not something I could send to a government committee. Because I, I don't want them. I don't want them censoring stuff, I don't want them putting their fingers in it, and I just I don't trust them. I think as an Indigenous person, as a queer person, like just many, many layers of distrust. So I think that probably has a lot to do with how I see the role art should have in my life.
Louis Esmé: Do you identify as Two Spirit, and or Indigenous LGBTQ? If not, how do you identify?
Margaret Robinson: I definitely identify as Two Spirit and that's been sort of a process. When I was living in Toronto, I had this moment where I was walking along Harbord and I was watching all these blue flowers, it was spring. They were popping up through the mostly frozen ground and I was feeling really happy and good and thinking, Oh, you know, isn't life great? And I was so pleased that I had done all this identity building work and was now comfortable with myself as a bisexual and as a queer. And I realized I hadn't done any work in a long, long time on my identity as an Indigenous woman, and people at school were starting to kind of pressure me to front, put that identity front and centre in some of my schoolwork. And I wasn't really comfortable with that. I felt like they were trying to encourage me to exploit my Indigeneity for, I don't know, like scholastic purposes and I just remember being pissed about it and then thinking, well, if you're not going to do that with it, what are you going to do with it? Like, is it just this thing in the background, like an operating system or is it a perspective on the world? Or so I realized I wanted to engage with that part of myself more and figure out how do I live as a contemporary person. Particularly in an area that wasn't my traditional territory, because it was easier to feel Mi'kmaw when I lived in the woods at home because that's what we did. But feeling kind of feel Mi'kmaw downtown Toronto, that had to that required some work.
So I think Two Spirit identity was one of the first things they did and engaged with, try to figure out how to be a contemporary, Indigenous person. So I went to the Native Canadian Centre on Spadina and met Blu Waters, and I thought maybe interacting with other Two Spirit people would sort of be a nice segue because I was already comfortable with queer communities. So I thought it might be a little similar or maybe a little more welcoming because I've gone to some Friendship Centres and the Indigenous centres of the university and I don't know, for whatever reason, I just did not fit like I didn't speak an Indigenous language. It wasn't my territory. They seemed really more concerned about Status. And until, like, I think 2010, I didn't have Status. I was one of those McGyver Indians.
So I sort of felt like everywhere I went, people were just going to think I was a fraud. And then Two Spirit identity, eventually, the more I learned about it, particularly learning about it primarily as a gender identity rather than a sexual identity, that kind of helped explain something that I always felt was a little off about me in comparison to other people. I would read books about like a woman identified women and, I just thought, wow, this is so not me. I'm not sure who I am, but I'm not one of these people. People would talk about the sisterhood of women, and I just I never experienced that. But I experienced something like that when I would hang out with guys. And so I always sort of silently to myself thought, well, I'm a dude in my head, but I'm like a cis woman outside of my head. And I kind of tended to think of some of my relationships with men as gay relationships, even if they never told them that. But it's...
Having the Two Spirit piece kind of explained what it was that was going on psychologically for me, because all the language that was available to describe feeling like I had a more masculine brain in a female body. That something was different there, like Trans, never quite did it because it seemed like that had a destination, like you start off here and then you're moving there. And they didn't yet have Non Binary as a popularized term in the communities I was in, and Genderqueer hadn't really come up yet. And I thought, well, I'm not really, I don't feel like it's an active thing. I feel like it's this thing which is happening in the background. It's how I view the world. It's not like I'm doing it physically with my performance of gender, because mostly I live as a pretty generic cis woman. Like I, I can do high femme, I did it for a bit. I can do soft butch, but it, it always felt like a dress up for me. And so I think I'm comfortable being kind of a masculine woman in some ways, and the older I get, the more comfortable I am with it.
And in Nova Scotia it just passes as completely like not even noticed because femininity in Nova Scotia is a little more on the masculine end of the feminine spectrum than, say, like Toronto or Ottawa. I noticed it when I travel. There are some cities I go to where it's like this is a lipstick place and then other places I go with, like I don't even have to wear makeup here and people will still acknowledge that I'm female. So I think the Two Spirit identity really helped me unpack a lot of what I had been feeling gender wise, that a lot of the colonial categories just didn't even have a name for.
Louis Esmé: How was your identity as a Two Spirit person, as a Queer woman, how are your identities consequential to your art?
Margaret Robinson: Like, how does the art influence the identity?
Louis Esmé: Um, I guess not exactly. Like is being Two Spirit consequential to the art making. Like, does it matter? Does it not matter?
Margaret Robinson: Oh, I think it does. Yeah. I think the kinds of truths that we can use art to tell either to ourselves, to other people. The kinds of connections we can experience and represent and describe in art. I think those come, to a certain extent, from being Two Spirit. So I noticed, for instance, when I read works of authors where... There are few male authors that I feel really get female characters well, and the first one I ever encountered that I felt like, oh, he kind of gets what it would be like to be female, to read a female character where she wasn't just wandering around being attractive to men, where she was actually a real living person, was Clive Barker. And I forget what book it even was. Finding out later he was a gay man, I thought, okay, so there's something about the queerness that enables you to shift back and forth of masculinity and femininity, or experience them simultaneously, or see multiple angles on life, maybe translate a little bit back and forth between those kind of ends of, of identity, I think that can come through in writing when you're trying to immerse yourself in a character. So I notice a lot of my main characters that are men, I think I am putting some of that experience of myself as a masculine person in the world into that.
And then when I do characters that are women, I'm putting some of my experiences as a feminine person in the world into that, although I think having, having learned a little bit about Mi'kmaq language, how verb focused it is, I think increasingly about the activeness of being, so like a character isn't just solidified and they're a man or they're a woman, they... You have to show in writing work, or in other areas, other forms of art, like you have to show, don't tell. You have to sort of show, like how are they manning or how are they womanning? And I find that kind of both an interesting challenge, but also an opportunity to push that limit a bit and show, well, here's, here's what someone might be doing in a given moment or a given scene, but then here's how they're feeling and then here's how they're thinking. And maybe those don't always line up so perfectly.
Louis Esmé: Hmm, that's going to give me some things to think about. Yeah. What's been your experience with mainstream art scenes?
Margaret Robinson: I know nothing about mainstream art scenes except in terms of how I've tried to occasionally mimic them in alternative art scenes. So I, I had been to, in the past like five years or so I went to some art galleries and saw, like how professionals show art? What does professional art look like to them? And so that's been interesting because a lot of the expectations I had about what the Art World was like from television or from meeting people who seemed like they were involved in art, it seems like there are many different art worlds. There's the world of people who are actively making art because they just make art, like it's an expression of who they are as a person. And then there's the business and I'm not a big fan of the business.
I don't. I'm not a big fan of how it gets commodified and how people start to try to work it out like an algorithm. Like this artist, if they live this long and are this famous, their work is worth this much. To me, it's about whether it speaks to me or not, not about trying to put a price tag on it and so I try to forget about valuing it economically and instead see what's the social value? What's the political value? What's the aesthetic value? What's the emotional value? Like how does it, how does it speak to you and stuff?
I learned some formal art analysis that was actually quite helpful. Learning how do people examine an art work? What kind of stuff do they look for? Some of the formal analysis gave a language and gave a form to stuff that I did intuitively. So you can sense if something is well balanced even if you don't know the language to describe that. Seeing some of that has been useful because then you can incorporate that idea into your art and say, I'm going to intentionally make this piece imbalanced in order to evoke a particular feeling, or I'm going to intentionally make this work, use complementary colours for a particular purpose. I think it can be helpful but I have not felt super welcome by the processes of art. I looked at some of the funding, for instance, Canada Council, Toronto, Ontario Council for Arts, and it seemed like they wanted to fund people who already were well established artists. So their bar for funding was not an entry level artist bar level. It was people who already have an established art history and a program that you can look: here are all the shows I've done and here is all the pieces I produced and here are all my patrons. They, they already kind of wanted a level of success that just seemed unattainable for me. I immediately eliminated the possibility I was going to get in the art funding in my life.
Although I did get, I went to a Canada Council funded Indigenous Writer's Retreat, and oh my god, that was a terrific freakin experience but it was because the people were so amazing. Connecting with those other Indigenous writers was amazing. But yeah, the mainstream arts scene, not not so awesome. I mean, there's been individual artists like when we did the Dykversity Art Show, someone just said, hey, wouldn't it be great if we had an art show? And I was like, so I don't know anything about art shows, but I'll put one on for you. So I called, I don't know if you've ever met Kathleen Brinkley?
She was a queer artist, someone connected me up with in Tkaronto. I think she I think she might have passed on now, but I haven't talked to her in years. She, she just told me flat out, like, here's what an art show looks like. Here's the stuff you need to do to put one on and it was so helpful. And just like the generosity of spirit, of just helping a bunch of people bumble through trying to create an art community for queer people, it was just, it was, it blew my mind! But I don't, I guess I don't think of that as mainstream because it was because it was pretty queer, so. Yeah, I mean, the mainstream art stuff always felt very colonial, like, you know, a Group of Seven, that it doesn't really speak to me that way.
Louis Esmé: The next question you might have already answered, so it's okay just to think about it. What's been useful for you in terms of solidarity and support from non-Indigenous artists?
Margaret Robinson: Yeah, for non-Indigenous artists, some of the queer artists that I've met, I think because we share sort of a bit of an outsider perspective. Although, they don't always see the ways that sometimes they're a little more inside, in some areas. It can be, it can be a challenge to... If everyone thinks we're all outsiders together, but in fact, some people have drastically different amounts of privilege than other people, it can be a little tricky to work with. People have been pretty generous in sharing their tips, their techniques, places they got funding, places they had a bad experience, places people tried to rip them off. And sometimes there's just a comfortable space that being around other people who value art can create where they acknowledge that, you know, if you spent eight hours working on a project or working on a piece, that's not time somehow wasted if you don't turn around and sell it. That there's a value in just making art for art's sake, and I found that has been really supportive and valuable.
Louis Esmé: What do you feel comfortable sharing about how art scenes can better support our communities?
Margaret Robinson: Oh, they need small entry grants for people who are learning to be artists or who don't know, how do you, how do you get in there? How do you represent yourself? What the, what does an art portfolio even look like? People who didn't go to art school, people whose art creating journey takes them to different places. So like I know artists who they've been working for 30 years as an artist, but all of their paid work is not related to their artwork. So they're seen as like a hobbyist, even though they've actually dedicated their life to continually practicing their craft. So just because it's not paying all their bills doesn't mean it's not legitimate. I think sometimes the, the starting off artists could get more support for that. Even support that a lot of the, a lot of the funding is aimed at creating a really clear end project, like it's a show or it's, it's something that they can write up about in their newsletter, and share with the federal government. I think sometimes people are afraid to learn because you're going to use up all the material that you have if it goes wrong. And when you're a broke artist, like that's a really serious issue. If you spend 70 dollars worth of art material learning how to do something and you don't have a 70 dollar piece at the end of that, like, that's that's an investment you've made in your craft and your skill but it doesn't end in a product you can sell someone, or show, or put on a wall. So sometimes having money that people are willing to just invest in people learning the skills would be nice.
Louis Esmé: Yeah.
Margaret Robinson: Especially for using non-traditional material. Like, I know a guy who makes Mi'kmaq musical instruments. He does the research to find out what this particular musical instruments look like, what were they made out of? And some of that material is hard to get.
Louis Esmé: Yeah, totally.
Margaret Robinson: It's not like you can take an online course and learn how to do it.
Louis Esmé: Yeah. Ooh, I have lots of thoughts about that.
Margaret Robinson: Yeah right?
Louis Esmé: Let's talk more about that later. Does your art practice involve or include non-Indigenous artists and how does that impact your work?
Margaret Robinson: Yeah, so I think as a, as a professor at a university, I mean, a lot of people in their early-mid 20s and a lot of them, in addition to going to school, do art. And because I'm now in the English department, a lot of those folks are writers, but just people who do other things, too. One of my colleagues does stitch work, and so a lot of people interested in doing traditional stitch work or crafting material, selling kind of things, have been connecting with her and doing activities, making moccasins, making ribbon shirts, that kind of thing. I guess something that in a non-Indigenous context would be maybe considered like fashion design. And so I think interacting with people who aren't Indigenous, but who, whose approach to art and to learning techniques and to sharing that is similar to my own, and that it's mostly non-commercial. That it's mostly about building political and cultural and social community, about communication, and connection about self exploration.
I think a lot of folks are using art in place of mental health services. So, you know, sometimes there are things that are stressful and art has been there for a lot of folks. And so when you meet someone who, you know, art also saved their life, that's, that's a strong bond where you can both end up talking for four or five hours because you both geeked out about the same kind of thing, like the material or a particular technique you like or a particular artist that you really admire. It's, again, it's that sort of moment where time and other concerns just kind of fall away. It's almost like making art itself sometimes to engage with people about art.
Louis Esmé: As an Indigenous artist, what's your experience with Indigenous art scenes?
Margaret Robinson: It's awesome. Oh, my god, it is so cool. I have fallen so hard for the Indigenous New Wave. I think the fact that it's so queer is really speaking to me. The fact that it's doing interesting things with gender, and with politics, and unapologetic, and like in-your-face kind of way. It's just caught a fire in me. I am so psyched about it. So I think watching the film work of Jeff Barnaby, reading the poetry of Gwen Benaway, and I'm not even like a poetry person. I've written some poems. I don't read poems usually. I read Gwen's because I met her at a thing and I was like, alright, I'll read your book. And I, I thought, I'm going to have to slog through this so that when we eat sushi together, I'll have something intelligent to say and oh my god, I loved it. And I realized the problem is, I didn't, I thought I hated poetry. I didn't hate poetry. I hated poetry by dead white dudes that had nothing to do with my life.
Louis Esmé: (laughs).
Margaret Robinson: Alicia Elliot's work, even something that's almost sort of mainstream in Nova Scotia, like the work of Alan Syliboy, some of that stuff, it's just, ah, it feeds me on multiple levels, and it's. I can see why people sometimes connect to a piece of art and want to put it on their wall, but I think as much as I would love to fill my walls with art, it's not financially feasible. But you can fill your brain with art. And so I think those, the ways that Indigenous artists play off of each other, push each other, challenge each other. I find that that kind of community is really, really fun, really valuable.
Louis Esmé: What's been useful for you in terms of solidarity and support from other Indigenous artists?
Margaret Robinson: Oh, they will tell it like it is, man. When I went to the Indigenous Writer's Retreat in Banff. There were, I don't know, maybe like a dozen people there. One guy was from New Zealand, this amazing Maori poet, Alicia Elliott was there. Gwen Benaway was there, Cheri Dimaline was there. Wab Rice was there. I'm like the loser of the group. Everybody I met has become famous in like the last five years and it, just watching it kind of blow up, it's like, holy shit, you guys are good. They will just tell you, like, this character is too cardboard, this character... You need to address that character's relationship with their mother, what's going on with this thing?
Margaret Robinson: And they would just bluntly tell you what was wrong with your piece and how to fix it and ask you the questions that drew out that kind of creative spark that makes work good rather than just well written. You can be workmanlike and do all the right things, but if it has no life, it's not, it's not the same. And so they're great tips. They're bitching about problems. They're the kind of way they just understand that sometimes you look at a page or something you've written and you just hate it so much you want to kill it, but the way that that also acknowledges the thing is alive. I can't even begin to express how helpful that has been, and not only in terms of like kicking my own artwork in the ass, and getting it active and motivated, but helping me understand why do we do art in the first place.
Louis Esmé: How do you offer support and solidarity to artists whose lived experiences are distinct from your own?
Margaret Robinson: Well, I have had a few opportunities where I was able to hire artists for work I was doing and pay them, pay them adequately, pay them properly, pay them as much as possible. I had some opportunities to hire people to do sketch work or to do film work. And so I whenever possible, I try to hire Indigenous artists and I think it helps them build a portfolio of paid work, which can be really challenging if you're trying to get funding to show that you have done things and been paid for it in your life. Work on grants with artists and show that they're engaged in broader activities. Sometimes being able to say you were on Project X changes how people view an artist, makes them seem more legitimate. As annoying and stupid as it is that some people are legitimized because they participated in a really colonial project a year and a half ago. I think that does happen.
And so trying to figure out how to make the privileges I have access to in terms of money and cultural capital, how to redirect that to our community, to Indigenous community is something I'm still learning and working hard to do. I think also promoting their work. So any time I see someone I know who's done work on it, I promote that their work is happening, congratulate them on things that they've won or things that they've accomplished. Within the university, they have different opportunities where you can promote the work of particular artists, so I always go and pump for the Indigenous artists that I know to make sure that they can get some recognition or some, some support, maybe get them out to do a lecture, whatever the the plan is. So I think promoting it and occasionally being able to pay somebody for their work. It's, it's not a lot, but it's the, I think it's the best I can do from this position I find myself in at Dal[housie University].
Louis Esmé: Does your art practice involve or include global Indigenous artists? And how does this impact or influence your work?
Margaret Robinson: I think my schoolwork kind of has. So one of the first things I did when I got a job at Dal was, I realized that there's, I had to create six courses. And so I thought, well, what do you want to talk about? What do you want to focus on? And one of the things I wanted to focus on was Indigenous art. So I created a course and taught it for three years called Contemporary Indigenous Art, where I introduced Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to the work of about a dozen Indigenous artists from mostly Canada and the U.S. And we looked at their work and talked about what their work means and the cultural context that that artist comes from. So folks like Douglas Myles, people like Brian Jungen, Annie Pootoogook. I think most of my influences are North American, but like I mean, Apache skateboards just blew my mind.
Louis Esmé: (laughs).
Margaret Robinson: I think it's... Douglas Miles did a piece using... An artist had taken a picture and then he did drawings on top of the picture and being able to look at how the drawings complement and change the photorealism of a photograph. I found that fascinating because he was able to represent history and ancestry and even thoughts and emotions visually in a way that still anchored it in a concrete reality of people being pulled over and stops searched and checked by the cops. It just blew my mind. I was so impressed with it. And the fact that he then puts those images on skateboards and communicates it to a whole different generation than his own. I think that's one of the amazing things that art can do. It can. It can foster that communication.
Louis Esmé: On that note, how do you use your art to address social and cultural issues?
Margaret Robinson: Oh. I guess occasionally there'll be things that I'm usually mad about that I want to address in art. So a lot of my writing is like, I think starts off as a way to get angry rants out of my head. Sometimes it's a way to process my own response to social or cultural issues that I'm not entirely sure I have words for, to just work out intellectually. But sometimes you can work them out emotionally and then the insight you gain from that helps you figure out how you feel about it and what you can think about it then. And I think sometimes it's, it's a way to separate from cultures and practices that are not very healthy for us. It can be an alternative to participating in the expected cultural and social practices that colonial Canada takes for granted. If you're, if you're instead going to spend X number of hours off by yourself doing an art piece, it's a kind of dropping out. It's a kind of, no, thanks, guys. I'd love to find out, how is it different for people who do art that involves working with other people, like all kinds of art forms, involve more than one person. But mine are always like me alone in a room, so I'd be curious about what happens when when it's a team effort, like I would imagine that kind of communication through art could be really impressive and really interesting.
Louis Esmé: How does your creative practice involve community and can you share about your process if it applies?
Margaret Robinson: I think it only involves community in terms of how community has shaped me, so a lot of the stuff that I do is kind, I'll say antisocial. I don't interact with people a lot outside of my work because my work requires so many meetings and so much physical interacting with other people, which is not really my forte, I'm not... I'm an awkward child. I was not a social person. I was shy and not particularly adept at interacting with other people. And I think that's kind of where my art is rooted in. It's that. You know, I don't want to, I don't want to play with the kids next door. Instead I want to sit here and write this little book for myself. And so I think some of my work is just kind of anti interactive. It's an alternative. It's an escape. So it's hard to figure out, like how will it involve the community? I'm not sure it does. It would be nice maybe if it did more. I think sometimes when I'm sharing a finished piece with people, it can become an easier point of interaction. So, like I, I spent six months making a Mi'kmaw beaded hat, like a traditional pointy hat and oh my god, it took so long. It took so much longer than I thought it would. I thought I'd whip it off in a weekend and six months later I was like still trying to understand what is this hat about and what does it mean?
Margaret Robinson: And so then interacting with people about that has actually been kind of cathartic, an interesting experience, because other people will share with me the experiences they have had making regalia, or where did you go to find out how to do the stitch? And then talking to a Métis colleague who tells me, based on the way people do stitch work, she can trace where that history of that stitch goes. And so, like. People might be able to tell which YouTube video I watched to figure out how to attach beads to wool. You know what I mean? I mean, it's fascinating, I think.
It's maybe, maybe it puts me in a community that I'm not even fully aware of, sometimes. When you create a piece, particularly say, like fan fiction, sometimes I'll write a piece of fan fiction and it puts me then in a community of other people who are doing that and unless I see myself as part of that community. It might not be super relevant, but other people are going to read that work in relation to the values of that community. I think art can be a way of engaging with community, even for people who are awkward and shy like I am.
Louis Esmé: Yeah, definitely. Yeah.
Louis Esmé: Is there anything else that we've missed that you might want to just either go back to or bring up?
Margaret Robinson: I think one of the things I really enjoy about Indigenous art is the sense of humour. I think there's a playfulness even when the work is about something that really pisses us off. And I think that's, humour has been a coping mechanism for a lot of us, but I think it's also something that's really cultural valued. It's a it's a form of communication that I think, dare I say, I think Indigenous people have kind of elevated to an art form, but we are damn funny. And I think that is that has been a resilience element. And so when I look at Indigenous art, even like some of the memes that I see on, like Walking Eagle, like the whole premise, it's it's an art form that is a protest form. But it's also really easy and kind of populist. You know, it's accessible. Anyone could make a meme. And so I think there are elements of accessibility and of humour that I think makes Indigenous art special.
Louis Esmé: Hmm, yeah.
Margaret Robinson: I can't wait to see your project. It's going to be awesome.
Louis Esmé: You mean this one?
Margaret Robinson: Yeah. I can't wait to hear all the things that people say and what, what seams
do you see? All right. Have a good day.
Louis Esmé: You too. N'multes.