Visual arts professor turns to his Métis roots for major art project

By Costa Maragos Posted: January 2, 2018 6:00 a.m.

David Garneau, Associate Professor in Visual Arts, is creating 400 Indigenous-themed paintings for Edmonton’s new Tawatinâ Bridge.
David Garneau, Associate Professor in Visual Arts, is creating 400 Indigenous-themed paintings for Edmonton’s new Tawatinâ Bridge. Photos by Rae Graham - U of R Photography

David Garneau is helping build bridges and you can see it in his art studio on the second floor of the Riddell Centre.
Garneau, an Associate Professor in the Visual Arts Department, has been commissioned to create the artwork for the pedestrian walkway underneath Edmonton’s Tawatinâ Bridge.

The bridge, which spans the North Saskatchewan River, will officially open in the fall of 2019.

By then, with the help of Indigenous and non-Indigenous assistants, Garneau will have created 400 Indigenous-themed paintings of varying sizes ranging from 20 cm to four meters. The paintings will be prominently featured underneath the tracks and viewed by the people using the footbridge.

“It’s really exciting,” says Garneau, a Métis artist who grew up in Edmonton. “The best part has been consulting with elders and knowledge keepers in Edmonton and getting a sense of what they want on the bridge and the stories they want to tell.”

Garneau Pike
                 The Northern Pike features a map of Edmonton from the 1880’s.            

This is very much a personal project for Garneau. The Tawatinâ (Cree word for valley) Bridge is located near the area where the Garneau family settled in the 1870s.  

That personal connection shows up in at least one of Garneau’s works.

It’s an exterior shape of a northern pike with the interior representing a map of Edmonton river lots from the 1880s. Many of the community’s founders were Métis families, including the Garneaus.

“The yellow section is the Garneau district,” he says, pointing to the work on his studio wall. “The colour next to it is where the University of Alberta is now located. That territory was Laurent and Eleanor Garneau’s river lot and is still called Garneau district to this day.”

Other pieces have taken shape.

Those include a beaver-shaped piece that sports the familiar yellow, red and green stripes of Hudson’s Bay. It pays homage to the original Cree inhabitants who called the place Amiskwaciy (Beaver Hills).  

“The paintings will have Métis and First Nations themes and styles relating to the plants and animals from the area, but also the stories of the region entrusted to me,” says Garneau, who has about eight students working with him on this project. 

Other works visible in Garneau's studio feature stone used to pound berries, a garter snake and a red-headed woodpecker whose Cree name is Papaschase.

"Chief Papaschase and my great, great grandfather, Laurent, were friends," says Garneau. "The Papaschase people had a reserve in what is now South Edmonton before they were forced out. Each piece will have a story.”

Garneau Bird Garneau

Garneau is seeking input from the public.

“I’m looking for suggestions from Indigenous people who lived or live in the region and stories that need to be told,” says Garneau. “I’m also looking for thoughts and ideas from non-Indigenous people who have a close connection with the River Valley. In particular I would like to include images and stories from the carvings in the old wooden railings that were part of the previous bridge.”

Garneau has an MA in American Literature and a BFA in Painting and Drawing with Distinction from the University of Calgary. He’s held his current position at the U of R for 18 years.

His work has been exhibited across Canada and internationally. This is his first public art work.

“It’s really exciting. It’s not the city I live in anymore. But my heart is still there,” he says.

Garneau is posting his pieces as he completes them on a website which is constantly being updated. If you want to share your stories or memories about Edmonton’s River Valley area please visit here to share your story.