NWT Arts Artist’s Corner: Taking Care

The reasons people make art are incredibly varied. Some create as a form of self-expression. For others, art-making is an intellectual pursuit – a study of technique, form or colour. Some create simply because they must – it is as essential to life as eating or sleeping. Mary Louise Drygeese is different. The word that characterizes her craft is care. Through her sewing, the 82-year-old elder cares for others. Her art is about service.

Mary Louise with a pair of her moosehide and rabbit mukluks with beautiful embroidery on white stroud.

Mary Louise has lived near or around Dettah her entire life, and is dedicated to caring for her community. As a girl, she helped care for her siblings, and when her father, Joe Sangris, was chief of Dettah, it was her job to provide hospitality to his steady stream of visitors. In 1999, she shared a memory with Northern News about her youngest brother Eddie clinging to her dress as she tried to serve her father’s guests. “I didn’t know what to do with him so I locked him in the cupboard until I finished the dishes. He calmed right down. Boy, that was that funny.”

Mary Louise raised seven children of her own and has helped in the raising as many grandchildren. For 27 years, she worked as a nursing assistant, visiting the sick, holding infants while they got their needles, translating Dogrib into English. 

Traditional Embroidery artwork Mary Louise was commissioned to make for the new Stanton Territorial Hospital.

Through it all, she sewed and beaded, achieving the highest level of craftsmanship. She made countless mukluks and moccasins, always giving them away. She beaded traditional patterns on moosehide she tanned herself, or on wool stroud. These days, Mary Louise prefers embroidery. “Embroidery is easier when you’re old,” she laughs. “I’m slow at beading now. All my girls and grandkids are better than me!”

Recently, the new Stanton Territorial Hospital commissioned Mary Louise to create a piece for their walls. After a year of work, she completed one of her most stunning embroidery pieces yet. On a fresh white background, sprigs of flowers radiate from a sequined centre line. “I thought and thought,” said Mary Louise.

“I thought about those doctors and nurses working hard to care for everyone. So I made 24 flowers – one for each hour of the day, for the long shifts and hours on the clock. Pink flowers for the women, blue for the men.” The piece is remarkable – not only does it pay homage to professions of care, but it is traditional, expressive, and intellectual all at the same time.

Learn more about the story of Mary Louise’s artwork at nwtarts.com/artist-profile/mary-louise-drygeese

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