NWT Arts Artist’s Corner: Gone Fishing

Charlotte Overvold’s kitchen doubles as her studio. The table is strewn with fish scales, glues, pigments. The freezer is full of trout and whitefish skeletons from Great Slave Lake. The best feature though, is her burbling, bright-eyed, six-month-old daughter Océane Snow, who is waving happy fists in the air and refusing to go down for her nap. The bustling kitchen-nursery-studio makes for a particularly accurate portrait of Overvold. For her, as an artist-activist-mother, there is no separation between art and life. Her daughter’s presence in the world has strengthened her commitment to learning the Dene traditions of fish scale art and fish bone butterflies. “My mother taught me this art from a young age, but I continue to search for new knowledge. It’s a part of me, but I’m also a visitor to it,” she says.

Overvold’s original home is Fort Good Hope, though she was raised in Yellowknife by her adoptive family. She studied Fine Arts and Social Work at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. “Having my daughter has helped me feel re-born, in a way. I’ve been learning more about my identity. I say yes to all workshop invitations now, as it will help my daughter learn about her identity,” she says.

Her profound respect for the art form is contagious. She shows me a relic from her childhood, a ziplock bag full of subtly-coloured fish scales, dyed with rosehips. She explains how plants were once used to dye the scales before the tradition was contemporized. At one point, artists began leaching the dye from torn tissue paper, and now it is most often bingo dabbers or Rit clothing dye that are used. The results are ultra-bright neon colourations, a unique pop-art/nature-art hybrid. Overvold layers tie-dye pigments and nail-salon hardeners in her own work, and she has pushed art in a new direction – vertebrae adornments with a definite punk-rock esthetic. “These are made for warriors,” she says, holding up a spiky pair of earrings, “but they are also delicate.” She places a tiny square of birchbark in my hand, on which one of her students, a child, had glued a fish scale flower. The stem is made of a single, slightly curved fish rib.

“I want to change the dialogue around fish bodies,” she says. “They should not be thought of as garbage. The bones and scales are so intricate and beautiful. We value the land. We can also value the gifts of the water.”

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Learn more about Charlotte Overvold’s art at nwtarts.com/artist-profile/charlotte-overvold

An intricate 3D scene consisting of a whitefish bone butterfly perched on a birchbark flower, fish scale covered birchbark cocoon, and grass accents made out of whitefish fish ribs.

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