Ursula Johnson has an exciting new experience to add to her already impressive résumé. She is the first artist in residence at Cape Breton University.
Originally from Eskasoni, Ursula studied theatre arts here at CBU which would pave the way for her future art exhibitions. She then moved to Halifax, N.S., to attend the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design (NSCAD) University. There, she studied a variety of mediums, including photography, drawing, textiles and screen printing. “Just before graduating I went into a bit of a panic, because I didn’t have access to a loom, a darkroom or any of the other equipment that NSCAD provides,” recalls Ursula. “I ended up staying an extra semester and worked with Rita McKeough who works in installation and performance art. She helped me bring out the performative element in my art.”
Ursula graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from NSCAD in 2006 and already she has been featured in more than 20 solo and group exhibits across Canada. Reflecting on her career to date, she says that one of the highlights was a performance piece she did called Elmiet (He/She is Going Home) for the Nocturne and Prismatic Arts Festivals in Halifax in 2010. “I began that performance piece in the afternoon, walking through the streets of Halifax wearing a headpiece that I had created which was representative of my hair. I handed out invitations along the way to an event that I was hosting at 9 p.m. at Grand Parade Square,” says Ursula. “At the evening event, I explained that I was wearing the headpiece to draw attention to the 1756 Scalping Proclamation which was put forth by Governor Lawrence and has not yet been rescinded. I then invited a member of the audience to come up on the stage who tore off my headpiece to represent the last scalping of an Indian in Halifax.”
The headpiece Ursula created for that performance was made using Mi’kmaq basket weaving techniques. In another career highlight, Ursula did a performance piece where she wove a basket around herself. She says, “I first did that performance in 2003 in Halifax, but I needed help from Elders to finish it because at that time I didn’t know how to weave. When I revisited that piece in 2010, my weaving skills had improved and I was able to complete the basket in 12 hours.”
Ursula is now taking her basket weaving skills into the classroom as part of her role of artist in residence. She is currently teaching a special topics course called The Role of the Mi’kmaw Basket in Contemporary Fine Craft. Ursula has also developed a public lecture series which is held through the CBU Art Gallery. “My position as artist in residence here at CBU is very different from other residencies and internships I have done in the past,” says Ursula. “In other residencies, I primarily worked in a studio. Here, I get to teach and interact with students, faculty and Elders in residence. I also have incredible resources to consult here at the Beaton Institute, the Mi’kmaq Resource Centre and Unama’ki College which is really helpful for my art creation.”