Andrea Walsh

Children’ s Art: From Looking to Bearing Witness

Dr. Walsh has written this essay in response to the words put forward by Carey Newman

When I think about what it means to me to be a witness in the context of residential and day school legacies in Canada, a flood of images, sounds, and feelings flow into my mind’s eye, and into my heart. This sensorial rush made me pause with reflection on how I have come to learn about art created by children in residential and day schools. The mixing of ways of knowing: seeing, hearing, feeling, struck me as something that I have accepted as part of my process of bearing witness. By acknowledging this, I mark a shift in my approach to learning as an academic and I mark a shift in my personhood as a Canadian with mixed Settler and Indigenous ancestry.

When I think about how we might bear witness to the art of children, I think a certain ‘unlearning’ of ways of knowing must take place. Retracing my formal academic training I think about classes that privileged my visual comprehension of images and objects. Yet my learning about art by children in residential and day schools has been premised on listening. Why? Perhaps one might suggest that because of the rarity of children’s artworks there is not a plethora of art to visually consume the way I viewed art in my classes on various genres of European painting and sculpture, or even Indigenous art. The collections of children’s art that I have had the privilege to work with are visually compelling, but the majority of the knowledge I have about them has not come from formal analysis of style, or a consideration of their symbolic meaning. Rather, Survivors, their families, and communities have gifted me knowledge about the art through stories, testimonies, and statements. Importantly, these people all speak about why these pieces of art matter.

When something matters, and is claimed as important or precious, we must attend to why and how this moves us beyond the material object or image. The object or image becomes storied and known based upon the specific accounts of its creator, or a recounting of that person’s life and relationships. It becomes a record. In various ways, and to different audiences, children’s art is a form of testimony, or statement, to the life of a child and his or her thoughts. These records matter. They matter to families and to communities, and they should matter to Canada. And Canada should see the children’s art for what it is, an official record of human experiences. However, in so ‘raising’ the art of children to the status of official archive of the residential and day schools in Canada, we must never lose sight of one thing. The art was never meant to be such a record. Works of children’s art are the physical manifestations of children’s knowledge and experiences. And moreover, the art is the work of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, siblings, cousins, aunties, uncles, and grandparents. For many of the people who have contributed their stories to the knowledge we have about the artworks, the art is first and foremost the creative legacy of family members.

When the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was reached, it was agreed that the Truth And Reconciliation Commission (TRC) would establish an archive of records about the schools for use in perpetuity. The perspective of the schools from the point of view of the child who experienced them is recorded in the thousands of public statements gathered at TRC gatherings across the country during the commission’s operational years. They are also recorded in the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) records that are currently the focus of a Supreme Court case that will decide their fate, whether they will be preserved for future access, or destroyed after 15 years from creation.

As official records, children’s art stands apart from other forms of evidence of the schools that speak to ‘factual’ accounts. The artworks are a form of truth telling that asks us to witness a child’s life in a moment in time that documents their abilities to create and communicate their lived realities, even in the dire context of life in the schools.

The historically contextualized ways, by which the art was created and then preserved, may deem it to be viewed as an incomplete record. By no means do the known collections of existing art represent anything other than a small fraction of the number of schools that were in operation and/or the number of children who attended them. The record of children’s art may also have been seen as incomplete via the fact that many of the works do not have names, or dates, attached to them. However, even in the absence of names, one can still bear witness to the thoughts of a child by being attentive to the pressure of a pencil on paper, the choice of colour, and sometimes, the subject of an image or object. In the case of works that don’t carry specific stories, children’s art can be witnessed by considering the works after listening to a selection of the thousands of statements given by Survivors recorded by the TRC. At times the art may reflect directly the content of the statements about life in the schools. At other times it can demonstrate the ways children used art as a vehicle to escape the confines of the school and demonstrates their resilience as youth.

Witnessing children’s art includes my attention to the ways Survivors speak about how, and why, they choose to publicly exhibit their treasures. As I am part of building research and exhibition collaborations around children’s art with Survivors and their families, I am mindful of their reasons to engage Canada by telling their stories using artwork; why their art matters.

Bearing witness does not translate facts. It transforms relationships. I said at the beginning of this piece of writing that a flood of images, sounds, and feelings flow into my mind’s eye, and into my heart. Bearing witness means finding a way within my heart to speak about the feelings that emerge for me through this process (sadness, rage, embarrassment, shock, ignorance, emancipation). Bearing witness carries the responsibility to forward the knowledge I have been given. When I consider children’s art in these ways, it is impossible for it to exist only as a record of the past. It becomes a point of transformation for present and future relationships.