Making is Medicine exhibit offers a unique way of mourning

Curatorial intern Shaelynn Recollet stands in front of a display of 11 ribbon dresses, each topped with a letter to the late Jesse Gustafson from his mother Shannon (example of a letter pictured below).

M’CHIGEENG—For grass dancer and lead drummer of Battle Nation Jesse Gustafson of Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation near Thunder Bay, the powwow trail was more than just a summer diversion, the Red Road was a way of life. Sadly, Mr. Gustafson’s journey on that road was cut short by a tragic car accident while on the way back from Couchiching First Nation powwow in 2015.

Mr. Gustafson’s family channeled their grief and mourning onto a path of healing that provides an inspiration for those suffering the loss of a beloved family member. The creation of ‘Piitwewetam: Making is Medicine,’ an incredible collection of beadworked regalia, ribbon skirts, medicine bags and other works, provided a channel to celebrate the life of this amazing young man in a good way.

“This commemorative exhibit is our way of honouring Jesse Gage Gustafson’s life, as well as sharing all the pain and beauty of our journey,” writes his father, Ryan Gustafson in an introduction to the exhibit. ‘As a family we have always bonded through arts and culture, and although we each have our own personal struggles and challenges, we continue to be there for one another. Through this work we have gained a deeper understanding of the connection between art and ceremony.”

The journey to exhibition of ‘Piitwewetam: Making is Medicine’ at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF) in M’Chigeeng began two years ago, noted OCF archivist and program coordinator Naomi Recollet of Wiikwemkoong, who jointly with her sister Shaelynn Recollect (OCF curatorial intern) and Georgina Toulouse installed the collection.

“I received a call from the curators of the exhibition in Thunder Bay, Leanna and Jean Marshall asking if we would take the show,” said Ms. Recollet. She didn’t hesitate for a second and even a cursory glance at the items in the show will provide ample testimony as to why.

Entering the OCF central rotunda a series of 11 pedestals in a circle present brightly decorated ribbon skirts, each topped with a letter written by Mr. Gustafson’s mother, Shannon. The letters were written to her son following his death. The letters offer a window into the heart and mind of Ms. Gustafson as she dealt with the loss of her son.

The exhibit is charged with emotion and is comprised of a huge collection of pieces. Installing the works presented a challenge in itself, not only for the number but for the emotion with which each piece is infused.

“Shaelynn and I worked on the installation together,” said Ms. Recollet. “It was so emotional that sometimes I became overwhelmed and had to step away,” she admitted. “It was the same for my sister. We were very fortunate to have each other able to spell us off.”

The OCF museum space contains a collection of healing jingle dresses, while the walls of the museum host a plethora of intricately beaded medicine bags, moccasin tops and other regalia lovingly created by the Gustafson family, Shannon, Ryan, Justine and Jade.

Entry to the exhibit is by free will offering and is more than worth the visit on many levels. The works of the Gustafson family provide an inspiration for anyone dealing with loss, but are also a truly brilliant exhibition of art in its own right.

“If you’re not sweating, you’re not singing,” reads and inspirational quote from Jesse Gustafson hanging on the OCF wall. There is a tremendous amount of sweat equity on display in the Piitwewetam: Making is Medicine exhibit. The show runs to May 23 at the OCF on Highway 551 in M’Chigeeng.