The Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre (KOR) got a special delivery last week, an oil on wood painting of a ceremonial fish by renowned singer-songwriter Tom Wilson.
Intricately designed with pieces that fit together like a puzzle, the six-foot showstopper features a vibrant palette and detailed motifs from head to tail.
“For me, fish have always represented an offering of some kind, either as a meal or as a possibility for nutrition and keeping people alive. Besides that, I wanted to offer a substantial piece of art,” said Wilson.
The artwork is a donation from Wilson as a show of appreciation to the KOR who collaborated with him and assisted in the making of his upcoming book.
“We’re very appreciative and very happy that we have something of Tom Wilson’s,” said KOR’s executive director, Kawennanóron Lisa Phillips, who said Wilson has become a regular visitor at the centre over the years.
Although it is not yet decided where the artwork will be displayed at the KOR, Phillips said it’ll be featured at an exhibit in October.
This is one of three fish paintings of this size Wilson has created; one of them is headed to a charity auction for Swim Drink Fish – an organization dedicated to preserving aquatic health. Wilson estimated it’ll raise about $20,000 for the charity. The last of the trio is sitting in a gallery, but Wilson plans to offer it up as well.
He also makes smaller versions of the fish and gifts them to people he’s working with as a symbol of thanks and gratitude.
“My belief is that art, music, theatre, the written word, is all overlooked as potent medicines to heal our planet, and to make this a better place for us all. We are unfortunately drawn to churches and politicians and corporations for our answers,” said Wilson.
Despite being instinctively drawn to Kanien’kehá:ka style in his art, Wilson learned of his Kahnawake lineage only nine years ago, finding a new sense of belonging in the community.
Over the past near-decade of discoveries, he’s connected with family and forged kinship within Kahnawake. “Having my artwork there, having not me represented, but me giving something to that community that comes from deep down inside of me is very important,” he said.
Wilson works with woodworker Sheila Milligan, who carved the shape of the fish as per his instructions.
“He’s learning about his roots, and he’s meeting family,” said Phillips. “So he has an interest here, of course, within the community, so we’re happy to have a piece of his because this is where he comes from. This is his home, this is where he originates from,” said Phillips.
Wilson’s work here is far from done. He plans to bring more of his artwork to the cultural centre in the future – one of them potentially being an installation, Fading Memories of Home, paying tribute to the victims of residential schools and the systemic erasure of Indigenous culture.
“To me, my art being in Kahnawake, it means that it’s a piece of my art that’s gone home,” said Wilson.