Ursula Johnson recalls what she wrote in her essay when she applied to get into NSCAD: "I am not an aboriginal artist. I am an artist who happens to be aboriginal."
But by the time she graduated in 2006, her thinking had done an about face.
"I learned who I was," says Ursula, a Mi’kmaq artist originally from Eskasoni in Cape Breton. She weaves a long, ribbon-like strip of ash into a basket form as she talks, seated in Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery’s studio space where she’s doing a six weeks’ residency.
Arriving at NSCAD with the goal of being a photographer, Ursula thrived at NSCAD in interdisciplinary studies—taking classes in photography, textiles, drawing and printing. But even as she acquired new skills, she found herself looking over her shoulder at where she came from, at the Mi’kmaq’s own unique artistic traditions. She regarded these as if from a distance—making drawings and prints of the kind of intricate woven baskets her great grandmother Caroline Gould made. The late Caroline Gould was a revered Mi’kmaq artist whose baskets are highly prized by collectors. (She only recently passed away, but not before Ursula curated a 30-year retrospective of her work, Kloqowej ("Star"), at the Mary E. Black Gallery last January.)
"Just before I graduated, I wove a basket around myself. It was my first attempt in years," she explains, picking up the skill her great grandmother taught her when she was a little girl. "The basket was like a cocoon where I could understand myself and my culture. And so I emerged a different creature, a little wiser."
Since that moment, Ursula has reclaimed basket weaving for herself, using the same techniques her great grandmother used but employing them from a different perspective. She comes at basketry from two directions: she’d like to see baskets become functional again, but at the same time, she likes to play with the materials and let them do whatever they want to do, without being bound to construct a vessel.
Through recent history, she explains, basketry has gone from being functional, to decorative, to an art form that was collected and put behind glass. The next stages in this evolution would see baskets archived and then filed into memory; that is, if their original purposes aren’t resurrected.
"I would love to see people go to the market with an ash basket over their arm, or an ash backpack or a fishing creel," says Ursula who teaches basketry through NSCAD’s School of Extended Studies. "I don’t think you should have to be an art collector to bring a basket to the farmer’s market."