Up in the once sleepy town of Wakefield, Quebec the streets are bustling on a Sunday afternoon on Canada’s long weekend. The town, nestled in the Gatineau hills and lying along the beautiful Gatineau river, now not only boasts gorgeous scenery but many fine cafes and boutiques, artisan shops and bakeries. I’ve been there multiple time but especially in the last four years after purchasing a cottage in the region. I’ve wandered up to the old grist mill (which is now an inn and spa) and further to the cemetery where Lester Pearson and Malak Karsh are buried (among other notables) and then in out of the shops after eating a meal at a cafe. It’s always time well spent and a delicious adventure.
On previous visits before this past long weekend, I’d ventured into a shop called Khewa (meaning “the north wind which brings people back to essentials”). The objects, all having a First Nations flavour, were fascinating to look at, but as with most original, beautifully handcrafted art, a bit beyond my budget. I also had children whom I needed to police and herd away from the fragile pieces. This kind of distraction does not lead to any kind of practical purchasing so I always ended up leaving empty-handed. However, when you’re children free and away with girlfriends, the art of shopping comes back to one – kind of like riding a bike. My trip to Khewa was a much different experience this time.
When I, and my two friends, walked into the shop we were immediately met with leather pieces and fine jewelry. A beautiful, dark-haired woman, the same person I’d seen there before whom I assumed was the owner, stood behind the counter talking animatedly to some captivated customers. My friends and I split up and I sauntered between the displays imagining that I would, once again, leave empty-handed, when my eye caught something I couldn’t ignore. It was a large painting of an eagle swooping down on a woman. The colours were soft and yet full and the characters abstract and yet full of meaning and subtle movement. I stared at it a long time and then realized the room was filled with paintings by the same artist.
I could feel my heart start to race. Everywhere I turned my eyes were met with colour and beauty. I needed to have at least one piece to take home with me. Happily, these days, most savvy artists know that not everyone can take home an original so, in order to make their art more available, they make smaller prints and even nice quality greeting cards. I spent time picking through all the prints and chose three with images that resounded with me. I flipped one over and found information about the artist on the back. It turned out the artist was the lovely woman at the front counter who’s heritage, from her mother’s side, is First Nations.
I couldn’t wait to make the purchase and to have an opportunity to tell her how beautiful her work was. I mean, how often do you get to talk to the artist directly? I shuffled up to the cash and lay the merchandise in front of her. One of my girlfriends did the same. When Nathalie turned her attention to us, a gush of compliments poured from my mouth. You never know how some people will react; some shy away from compliments while others bask in them. Nathalie smiled and her eyes sparkled with a modest pride and gratitude. “Thank you.” she said. And I thought that’s where the conversation might end. But what followed was most delightful for me and my two friends…
Nathalie gently nudged the cards apart and pushed one to the forefront. “Would you like to know the meaning of this one?” she asked. Yes! All three of us nodded enthusiastically. With one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard and a lilting French accent, Nathalie began telling us the story behind the images. The women, the animals, their relationships to each other, to the earth, and to the Great Spirit. She explained how the images came to her and how many of them were part of a larger picture and story…As with Nathalie’s previous customers, my friends and I were immediately captivated. In fact, we were so impressed with her story telling, that one of my brilliant-minded friends suggested that Nathalie record her stories for audio files on her website. The stories just would not be the same without her telling them.
My friends and I walked away from a store with a happy experience in our minds and hearts (how often does that happen at the mall?). We made up our minds to return soon…the fall colours will be perfect in Wakefield in a month. Nathalie’s art now hangs in my meager home office; a small space in the basement. It looks lovely and livens up the space immensely. My plan now is to put aside some money…just a little every month…so that one day I can perhaps afford an original. There’s something very comforting to me about being surrounded by art, especially pieces with meaning. When I look at each piece I don’t just see the painting or photograph, but see my story behind it and if I’m lucky, as I was with Nathalie, I see the artist’s story too. Thank you, Nathalie, for such a wonderful experience. We’ll be back!