A Biography of Artist and Crafter Alice Olsen Williams

© Shkaabewis Lynn Gehl, Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe.

“I make blankets, just as my mother did, and her mother before her did.” Alice Olsen Williams.

Alice Olsen Williams is the daughter of Sarah Keesic Olsen and Einar Olsen. She was born during a Snow Moon in 1945 in what is now called Trout Lake, Ontario in a cabin on her maternal grandparents’ trap line. Alice is the oldest of six siblings. Her traditional name is Minaajimo-kwe which translates to “Woman Who Tells Good Stories”.

Alice Williams Artist at Work

Alice Williams, Artist at Work

As a young girl, Alice was raised in the culture of both her Anishinaabe mother, Sarah, and her Norwegian father, Einar. After her marriage to Einar, Sarah’s life became more in line with the practices of a European stationary life. Einar came to Canada for a better life, took up some land, and became a commercial fisherman. Prior to her marriage, Sarah, a member of the caribou clan, was living the life of the Anishinaabeg, following Creation’s laws, hunting, fishing, tapping trees, harvesting berries and manoomin (rice), and planting potatoes on the shorelines along the way.

Despite the more sedentary lifeway, Alice’s mother taught her and her siblings the language of the Anishinaabeg, known as Anishinaabemowin, and the material cultural traditions of processing the skins and furs of the larger four legged such as the moose, caribou, and deer; and the smaller four legged such as the mink, beaver, wolf, fox, muskrat, and weasel. Her mother also taught Alice how to tie fishing nets, process cedar roots for weaving and birch bark basket making, as well as the process of making and using natural dyes on fabrics. Further, Alice’s mother also taught her how to sew, knit, embroider, and how to do bead work on both hide and fabric and by loom. Alice was also taught the art of birch bark biting.

One memory that Alice has is of her mother’s work with rabbit fur, such as hand crocheting rabbit fur blankets, and her mom wrapping her children’s feet with rabbit fur before they put on their outdoor winter moccasins. Through these processes Alice became grounded in the Anishinaabeg worldview and the material traditions that value the natural world, the Four Orders of Creation, and the Four Cardinal Directions that the Otter reminded humans about after Mother Earth was cleansed with Water: East, South, West, and North.

Although Alice’s earlier years were with her parents on Trout Lake, in 1951 she began attending public school. During this time Alice stayed with a settler family in the larger town of Kenora, only coming home during the summer break. While she completed grades 1 through 7 in a mostly white public school, grades 8 through 10 were completed through correspondence courses, and grades 11 through 13 were once again obtained through attending high school in Kenora. Afterwards, in 1964, she attended Lakehead Teachers’ College gaining a certificate in teaching, eventually returning to university and completing a bachelor degree in Native Studies and Sociology at Trent University.

Alice taught for the Port Arthur Public School Board, and grades 1 through 3 on the Mobert Reserve community. She also was a supply teacher for the Peterborough Public School Board for three years. Eventually, after her marriage in 1968, the year she moved to Curve Lake, and while a young mother, Alice focused more on her art and craft work relying on many of the skills her mother taught her. Like many young mothers Alice sewed, knitted, and stitched her children’s clothing, developing a deeper love for fabrics; the colours and designs had changed so much from the time when her mother was a young woman and from the clothes that Alice herself wore as a child.

Eventually a friend encouraged her to think about quilting and at first Alice was reluctant to begin the enormity of this kind of work; her love for fabric moved her journey forward. As of 2018 Alice has been a full time quilt maker for more than 37 years and she has established a substantial body of work that, like Creation’s laws, has expanded and shifted over time, where each stage of development has a distinctive style.

 

 

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Alice’s earlier work is situated within the third order of Creation, where the four legged, finned and winged reside. These works illustrate the majestic beauty of the mooz (moose) and mukwa (bear), and a large collection of chemong (loon) quilts. Alice then moved within the second order of Creation where greater knowledge is found. Here she worked on the tree, flower, and fruit nations, completing an entire collection of works on apples and berries such as the particularly revered ode’imin (strawberry).

Alice has also completed an entire series of the Medicine Wheel and of the Star Blanket. The Medicine Wheel is a modern day appreciation of the Four Cardinal Directions where each direction is valued for the gifts Creation provides. The Star Blanket honours a young Anishinaabe-kwe who brought to warring men the need to return to more heartful ways. It is said that a Star Being gave this young woman a message of peace, where, after conveying the teaching to the men in her nation, she became the brightest star in the Sky world.

Later we begin to see the political workings of Alice’s keen mind where she broaches difficult topics such as Indigenous Land rights and the cultural genocide inherent in the Residential School System. One such piece created in 1991 is titled “The Tree of Peace Saves the Earth” (65” x 66”) which depicts Canada’s Parliament buildings, situated on Algonquin Anishinaabe territory, in a desecrating way. Another such example is a piece she created in 1992 titled “We are all Crying” (46” x 84”) for what Creation has had to endure at the hands of settler European peoples, the most destructive being of the fourth and last order of Creation when humans arrived on Earth.

Further, Alice is a social person who loves the company of her family and community members so much so that she has taken on many community art projects. One such project was a four-part quilt series to commemorate the Truth and Reconciliation Commission titled: “Schools of Shame”, “Crimes against Humanity”, “Child Prisoners”, and “More Horrors”. In this project, Alice curated and assembled numerous quilting blocks from around the country.

“I love the work you are doing with your art. For a long time, you have been telling important stories and ‘bringing the news’ to people who don’t know ‒ the news about the medicine wheel ‒ and the four directions, the news about the tragedy and loss endured by Indigenous people in Canada. Looking at your quilts is like reading a newspaper with no date on it. It is brave and beautiful work.” Shelagh Rogers

Alice’s body of work is substantive, totaling more than 450 quilted blankets, wall hangings, and table runners with original designs rooted in the Anishinaabe worldview, teachings, and Indigenous knowledge. Her work has appeared in art shows on both sides of the medicine line in what is now Canada and the United States. She is a daughter, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, auntie, and friend. She has four children, five grandchildren, and one great-grandson. She likes to read, eat, laugh, tell the truth, and sleep. You can see more of her work and reach her at: http://www.pimaatisiwin-quilts.com/.

Gehl Samatha Moss PhotographerLynn Gehl, Ph.D., is a member of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation and is a citizen of the larger Anishinabek Nation. She is an advocate, artist, and foremost a writer. Her most recent 2017 book is Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit published with the University of Regina Press. Committed to community people, she has published in Muskrat Magazine, Anishinabek News, Briarpatch, Watershed Sentinel, rabble.ca, Policy Options, and Canada’s History Magazine. You can see more of her work and reach her at: www.lynngehl.com

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