Group inspires Indigenous artists to channel creative energy into face masks

A Facebook group is creating space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to express themselves while observing physical distancing measures because of COVID-19.

The group, called Breathe, was started by two Métis women, Nathalie Bertin and Lisa Shepherd. It calls on bead workers and traditional artists to put their spin on the concept of a face mask.

“This project is born out of our cultural arts and our desire to create community during this crazy time,” said Bertin. 

Bertin is a multi-disciplinary artist from Toronto with roots in the Michilimackinac and Nipissing regions of Ontario. 

She said when the two first conceptualized the idea for the online group, they thought about making it for Métis artists but then wanted to include First Nations and Inuit artists as well. 

“The virus doesn’t know any borders, doesn’t know race, doesn’t know ethnicity,” said Shepherd, who is currently living in Vancouver. 

They decided to open the group up to all artists but made sure that the description specifies work with traditional materials. 

Artists from across the country and beyond have been joining the group and sharing their creations. 

“This project is kind of borne out of our cultural arts and our desire to create community and during this crazy time,” says Bertin. (Submitted by Nathalie Bertin)

Shepherd said that at the beginning of the pandemic she felt bogged down by emotions and found it difficult to pick up a needle and thread to start creating.

“I still had this desire to want to be able to do something as an artist, to be able to offer healing, to offer opportunity for other people to work through their own thoughts,” she said.

In having discussions with fellow artists like Bertin, Shepherd said she realized she wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

“I could see the benefit for other artists getting involved in the project, in whatever way the project could help them, to untangle the threads and help them to move through all of this.”

Creating community

The group was opened on Facebook on April 6 and has over 1,200 members.

Members of the group are encouraged to share their creations through photos and stories about their process in designing and creating their masks. 

“The mask itself is the initial inspiration,” said Shepherd.

“We learned early on that the mask is not protecting [the wearer] from COVID-19. When I wear the mask, I’m protecting you and I’m taking care of the community.”

She said the idea of the group is to help everyone take care of each other. 

“I think that there’s an incredible beauty and incredible love that’s being created and I think that it deserves to be seen,” said Bertin. 

They hope to someday see a gallery exhibit of masks created. 

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