I interviewed artist Robert Houle when I worked as a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.
“Look after this gift which has been given to you”.
Robert Houle’s mother offered her son that advice when she realized he was serious about painting. Houle is an Ojibway artist whose work can be found in many major museums and galleries in Canada. His Parfleches for the Last Supper are part of the Winnipeg Art Gallery collection.
A parfleche is a decorated rawhide pouch which was used by people of Plains cultures to carry personal and sacred objects. “A seer or sage came to our family home on the Sandy Bay Reservation for each of my eight younger sisters’ naming ceremonies,” said Houle, speaking to me from Toronto. “I was fascinated when they opened their parfleches and took out the bear claws and rattles they kept inside.” His mother always prepared a special supper for the occasion. The memory of those celebrations gave him the idea for Parfleches for the Last Supper.
“I imagined the twelve disciples coming to that final meal with Jesus, each carrying a parfleche and opening it for the others to see. Those men were all seers too.”
Houle has created and painted a handmade paper parfleche for each disciple. He chose the colors carefully.
Judas, who betrayed Jesus, has a black parfleche.
John, the purest disciple, has a white one. “I studied the Bible to learn about the Last Supper participants”, says Houle. “I selected a passage from the gospels to accompany every parfleche. I tired to pick verses that gave insight into that particular follower of Christ.”
Researching the disciples’ lives was a new experience for the artist. “In the Catholic churches and schools I attended we were not allowed to study the Bible ourselves, for fear we might misinterpret it.”
Although Robert credits the nuns who were his teachers for recognizing his artistic gifts, he has some unpleasant memories of his early educational experiences. “ I wasn’t allowed to paint things from my own culture, only what was dictated to me. My family always went to the Sun Dance to celebrate the summer solstice, so I was forced to go to confession and repent for worshipping false gods.”
He is happy to see progress towards integrating First Nations symbols in worship. “ On Manitoulin Island they’ve used sweet grass for incense during a service.” Houle knows native artists who have been commissioned to paint the Stations of the Cross for churches.
Initially Robert’s parents weren’t excited about his interest in art. “They thought it was something rich, white kids did”, he recalls. They were proud however when their son earned degrees in Art History from the University of Manitoba and Art Education from McGill. “Education was very important to Mom and Dad. I attended Assiniboia High School in Winnipeg. I’d go home to Sandy Bay every weekend. It was hard returning to the city on Sunday night, but my parents insisted. All their children finished high school and many of us have university degrees.”
Houle says Parfleches for the Last Supper was a major turning point in his career. “I took a chance mixing two diametrically opposed ideologies for the first time.” The combination of Christianity and aboriginal culture is clearly evident in his work. For example, the parfleches for Jesus’ disciples are fastened shut with porcupine quills.
Bartholomew’s pouch is decorated with lines patterned after the kinds of ribbons worn for traditional First Nations ceremonies.
Robert Houle is happy Parfleches for the Last Supper is part of the permanent collection at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The pieces were purchased by Mr. Carl T. Grant, with the intent of placing them in the bus depot on Portage Avenue, since many First Nations People pass through the building. However displaying and preserving the paintings there proved difficult, so they were given to the Winnipeg Art Gallery instead.
Robert had just returned to Toronto after being in Manitoba for his mother’s funeral, when he received an invitation to attend the official installation of his work. He flew back to Winnipeg and was deeply moved to discover that the donation of Parfleches for the Last Supper had been made in his mother’s memory. Robert recalls the event. “There was my family marking a happy moment in my career in black clothes. We couldn’t even drink the champagne because we were still in mourning.”
Parfleches for the Last Supper is a fitting tribute to a mother who encouraged her son to get an education and use his gifts well. It is a thought provoking work that raises many questions for people of faith who seek to more fully understand the relationship between culture and religious belief.
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