by John Copley
(ANNews) – There’s been a hubbub of activity in downtown Edmonton this month as the long awaited Rogers Place Arena and Ice District finally opened its doors to the public. In a fitting tribute to one of Canada’s most prestigious and celebrated citizens, the first event to take place in the $450 million, 1,110,900 square foot facility was the unveiling of “Iron Foot Place,” a 14-metre tiled mural created by Cold Lake First Nation artist, Alex Janvier and assembled by a team of experts from Montreal-based Monsaika.
Janvier, a descendant of the Dene Suline and Saulteaux peoples, was born on the Le Goff Reserve, Cold Lake First Nations in 1935. When, at age 78, he built and opened The Janvier Gallery in his home community in August of 2013 I asked Alex if he had plans to retire.
“Retire?” he answered. “I haven’t really thought about it; what would I do then? There is still more to do, still more to say and retirement really isn’t my way.”
So true. Alex Janvier has never sat still for long. In person he is a proud and unassuming man who speaks quietly and moves slowly, but when it comes to the messages he delivers on his canvas, he is anything but. He still has stories to share, messages to tell and warnings to deliver. His artworks reflect the reality of his culture, they tell the stories of the earth, its environment and the creatures within. His work ethic remains as strong as ever, his proficient and prolific talent continues to dominate, both on canvas and in person. His perseverance has paid off in spades.
During the unveiling of his mosaic, located in the centre of the new arena’s Ford Hall, many took to the podium to laud both the art and the artist.
Bob Black, the Executive VP of the Katz Group’s Edmonton Arena Corp. said he was honoured to be involved in a celebration for both the artist and the work he created for the project.
“This is a wonderful piece of art which will have an enduring legacy in our great city and throughout all of Alberta,” stated Black. “When Catherine Kerr of the Edmonton Arts Council first presented the idea of having a work by the renowned Alex Janvier in Ford Hall, our organization embraced the opportunity with genuine excitement. Not only is Alex an internationally renowned artist, he is a truly great Albertan and as I’ve come to know, a wonderful human being with great insight, humility and compassion. He’s also an ardent Oilers fan – and he’s told me that he’s also a truly great defenseman.
“Everything felt right from the very beginning. We’ve always envisioned Ford Hall as being a great meeting place. We have deep respect for the fact that Rogers Place is situated on Treaty 6 land. Having this incredible piece of Aboriginal art at the heart of this development creates a wonderful place for the coming together of people in mutual respect and a sense of community. This art will truly be an indelible part of the Rogers Place experience.”
Rogers Place is a beautiful and very large facility located on four hectares (10 acres) of land. The arena can seat 18,641 fans at both Edmonton Oiler and Edmonton Oil Kings hockey games; 9000 seats are located in the lower level. More than 20,700 seats are available for concert-goers.
At the beginning of the process to locate art for the building, Janvier submitted nine pieces, each a beautiful creation; “Iron Foot Place” was chosen.
“I didn’t really have a favourite; I let them decide what would work best,” answered Janvier when asked if he’d recommended or preferred a particular piece. “I think they made a good choice.”
Janvier admits that those looking at his art would have different takes on it; but when he mastered the piece he didn’t really plan for it to symbolize anything in particular.
“It’s a piece of art.” he shrugged. “It doesn’t symbolize anything in particular; every viewer will see something different. If it does symbolize anything at all it will be some of the things I have experienced in my life; in that sense it is a piece of art that can bring people together to unify their visual acceptance.”
And the art form itself, he said, is anything but new.
“It is not unlike some of the art that you’ll find in Florence or other European cities,” Janvier explained. “I think the tiled mural is a form of art that goes back to the Middle Ages. Tiled murals are everywhere in Europe, even on the streets. This type of art has a long history and now it’s being introduced to Edmonton – but not for the first time. I think I remember the old City Hall used to have an even more traditional look.
“Public art expresses the pulse of the nation and when it comes to art I believe Edmonton is the hub for artistic expression. The Ukrainians were the first to introduce their artwork here; that was the first breakthrough – then others began to express themselves through their artistic creations. Edmonton isn’t just a congregation of people – their tastes and visual senses are suited to the arts.”
The 81-year-old artist talks about his early years and the difficult time he had to afford paint and material to work with.
“I came to Edmonton with $25 in my pocket; it was a culmination of money that I’d won in art competitions in Calgary, Vermillion, St. Paul and Edmonton,” he reminisced. “I went to Wilson Stationery and found what I needed, but the price was $25. I negotiated long and hard and it took a while but I finally bought my first box of colours; I got the price down to $14. That was my humble beginning. Today, looking at this beautiful piece of art put together by a group of experts from Montréal is an amazing thing; it’s a wonderful piece of work. It is especially attractive from the very top floor. I think I paint better that I speak – but thank you for allowing me to talk.”
In his opening remarks Edmonton mayor Don Iveson said he was “honoured and privileged to be part of the unveiling of this signature work of art for Rogers Place, which of course lies in the heart of Treaty 6 territory.”
Iveson acknowledged and thanked “the diverse Indigenous peoples whose ancestors’ footsteps have marked this territory for a millennium – this includes the Dene, the Cree, the Nakota Sioux, Blackfoot, Métis and the settlers who came here from around the world. Together, we call upon our collective honoured traditions and spirits to work in building a great city for today and for future generations.”
Acknowledging and thanking the Oilers Entertainment Group and all of the individuals and partners involved in making Rogers Place a reality, Mayor Iveson thanked Treaty Six Grand Chief Randy Ermineskin for a shirt he’d been gifted. He also recognized attending city councillors, Ben Henderson, Bev Esslingen, Scott McKeen, Andrew Knack and Dave Loken.
“This public space is unique and breathtaking – an extreme public place – as Alex called it. It’s fitting that this piece of artwork by Alex Janvier was chosen to be at the very heart of this very special public space. Not only does it celebrate our shared history, it also represents the natural beauty and tranquility of this territory. When we made the announcement about this art last year Alex gave us a glimpse of what the final product would look like. With his eloquent use of abstract images and beautiful colours, “Iron Foot Place” is sure to become known as one of Edmonton’s greatest pieces of public art.”
Acknowledging the many family members who came to Rogers Place to participate and join Alex in the unveiling, Mayor Iveson noted: “It is a wonderful touch to have this celebration around your family and to involve your grandchildren in the unveiling.”
Alex’s children and grandchildren took part in the celebration, which included a Dene Drum Honour Song that was delivered by sons Dean and Dwayne Janvier, grandson Dayshen Janvier and family friend Victor Tssessaze.
Treaty 6 Grand Chief Randy Ermineskin said, “Being here and knowing Alex is an amazing experience. It’s wonderful when we see things happen like this and see the artwork that Alex is able to display. I am honoured to have the opportunity to stand here today to acknowledge not only this beautiful facility that has been made even more impressive by this incredible artwork, but also to honour the Chiefs, Elders and citizens of Treaty 6.
“Alex is not only an inspiration for our fellow First Nation citizens, but to anyone who has had the opportunity to meet him and follow him throughout the stages of his life. Alex is a family man, a strong influence in his community and dedicated to preserving our Mother Earth. Alex’s unique style is amazing; he communicates the traditions of the Dene people and has connections to the land, the sky and the water.”
The Edmonton Arts Council is the steward for the City of Edmonton’s public art collection, and is also instrumental in the selection process for new artwork, including the four beautiful pieces of public art now located in Rogers Place. Executive Director Sanjay Shahani, who referred to himself as the “newest Edmontonian in the room,” said he was both “honoured and proud to be involved in this process.”
Mr. Shahani is well known and appreciated throughout eastern Canada, particularly in Toronto where he spent many of the 25 years he’s worked in the arts as an arts professional. He has produced numerous documentaries, including “Don’t Pity Me:Jaromír Skrivánek,” and the series “Different, Yet the Same: A Look at Canadian Cultures Today.” As an educator, he has taught at post-secondary institutions in various North America cities. His move to Edmonton has proven to be a boon for the city.
“This work by Alex Janvier,” assured Shahani, “has really created a buzz. There’s not just interest from Edmontonians and Canadians, but from as far away as Russia. This is hugely important for this building; it is hugely important to the city of Edmonton. The idea of people coming together, gathering, participating in sporting activity – but also walking by, looking at, taking the time to internalize it, telling friends about it, teaching it to our children – I think all of these things are present in this magnificent artwork. As the mayor said, this is just the first step, but it is something that is important to all of us. It’s about taking steps together toward shared reconciliation. Reconciliation cannot be bought; it must he felt, it must be expressed and it must be given.”
He later noted that “placing this powerful Indigenous voice at the heart of Rogers Place transforms the space with a spirit that will enrich, inspire and provoke those who visit.
Emcee and longtime family friend, Guy Friedman, recognized several of Alberta’s accomplished Indigenous artists in attendance and noted that “one in every ten of our people is an artist; they can drum, they can draw, they can paint, and sing and they can tell stories. One in ten – for the rest of the population it is one in a thousand.”
Alex Janvier, on the other hand, is one in a million. Congratulations Alex!
For a related story and more photos click here.