Becoming an art collector

Few people set out to deliberately become art collectors.

It just happens, slowly, gradually, over time, one step, one piece at a time.

My journey probably began when my wife and I visited the annual First Nations Art exhibit at Brantford’s Woodland Cultural Centre about 10 years ago. The centre has held an annual exhibit of First Nations art for 37 years, in that time showcasing works by artists who went on to fame, although not always good luck or fortune: Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Carl Beam, Blake Debassige, Alex Janvier and many others.

Photo of Noah Sainnawap artworks

The exhibit we attended had dozens of works in a variety of mediums and styles, Woodland style paintings, contemporary pieces, installation art, soapstone carvings, pottery, corn husk dolls, politically-charged art and more.

Two pieces caught our eye. They were two acrylics on canvas the same size: bright, bold colours on a pure white background, showing interlocking, intertwined spirit figures, animals and faces that drew you in. One painting was called “Wee-sa-kay-jac” (The Trickster) & His Friends”, the other “Sunset Dancer.” Both dated 2001.

The two pieces were by Noah Sainnawap, who we had never heard of. We owned a Blake Debassige print, but no original native art.

Some of the art in the Woodland exhibit were for sale, some wasn’t.

Timidly, afraid the price would be too much for our modest means, we asked if the two paintings were for sale and for how much. The answer surprised us: $175 each. We looked at each other and decided to splurge, buying our first one-of-a-kind, original pieces.

Noah Sainnawap (1954-2005) died just four years after creating the two works. Noah Sainnawap (known as Noah Brown in his early years), a Cree from Pickle Lake, Ontario, was part of a second generation of Woodland painters. He carved out his own distinct style, both by his use of colour and abstraction. Although Noah Sainnawap is held in collections such as the Royal Ontario Museum, McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, I see him as an under-appreciated First Nations artist.

Since then we’ve added a few other First Nations art, including Noah Sainnawap’s friend Sam Ash and Isaac Bignell, but the “The Trickster” and “Sunset Dancer” remain special to us.

— Mark Skeffington,
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