A striking mural on the back wall of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church is likely to catch the attention of any passersby in Picton, Ont.
First revealed in October 2018, the mural is a slightly altered reproduction of The Wisdom of the Universe, a painting created in 2014 by the celebrated Métis artist Christi Belcourt. The mural depicts the roots and branches of a stylized tree teeming with colourful life, compelling in its juxtaposition against the light grey limestone of the rest of the church.
The minister at St. Andrew’s, Rev. Lynne Donovan, is an admirer of Belcourt’s work and has gotten to know the artist’s mom, who lives in the neighbourhood. When Donovan first reached out to Belcourt about reproducing the painting, however, the artist was unsure. “I was hesitant to do anything with churches because of the history of churches and residential schools in this country, and the abuses that churches have perpetrated upon Indigenous people,” Belcourt says. But she found Donovan to be open and engaged, which helped her feel more comfortable with the process.
The painting is rendered in thousands of small dots that resemble traditional Métis beadwork and, in their circular shape, evoke “the cycle of life” and “express the unknown — from molecules to universes,” according to Belcourt’s artist statement.
The plants and animals depicted are some of the 200 that are classified as threatened, endangered or extinct in Ontario. In order to step back from the brink of climate destruction, we need to consider their rights, as we are all interconnected, explains Belcourt. “The life that’s on this planet is actually one large, breathing organism of which we are just a very small and at most times insignificant part,” she says. “Nothing depends on us to survive, but we depend on absolutely everything else.”
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The painting’s ecological and anti-colonial message was exactly what Donovan wanted to transmit at St. Andrew’s. “This is an image that represents Indigenous cosmology and spirituality. But it is also an image that is timely for us as Canadians because it’s calling us to open doors to friendships and partnerships with our Indigenous neighbours,” says Donovan. “It’s challenging the cosmology that was at the heart of colonialism, which was really oppressive.”
The mural has also prompted the St. Andrew’s community to connect with their Indigenous neighbours. The church is located on Mohawk land, just 20 minutes south of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. But Donovan says historically there has been no relationship between these two communities. Now, that’s changing. Belcourt’s art “was the catalyst for us going and knocking on the door to the north,” Donovan says. Last October, the church invited four artists from the territory to exhibit their work in the church’s sanctuary and offer a presentation to the congregation during a Sunday service. It’s something the church plans to do again.
“This is the image that keeps on teaching, challenging, inviting more sustainable practices when it comes to living on the planet,” Donovan says. “It’s just one great big reminder. And not a day goes by that people aren’t showing up to have a look.”
This story first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “A teaching image.”
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