In recognition of Orange Shirt Day, Remai Modern issued a call earlier this year for Indigenous artists to create a T-shirt design for the museum.
After reviewing many incredible submissions, Ailah Carpenter’s design was selected as the winner by a committee made up of the museum’s Indigenous staff.
Her design will be produced later this fall for the Remai Modern team to show support for reconciliation efforts and raise awareness for Every Child Matters. Though they won’t be for public sale, Remai Modern will donate $8 from every shirt produced to the Saskatoon Survivors Circle. The shirts are being printed by Pebl Goods.
Orange Shirt Day derives from the personal story of Orange Shirt Day founder Phyllis Webstad. Her story can be read on orangeshirtday.org.
Orange Shirts are intended to:
- Support Indian Residential School Reconciliation
- Raise awareness of intergenerational trauma caused by Indian Residential Schools
- Create awareness of the concept “Every Child Matters”
We got in touch with Carpenter to ask about her design and art practice.
1. Hi Ailah! Tell us about yourself.
My name is Ailah Carpenter. I lived most of my life in Saskatchewan, and while I was born in Regina, I consider Prince Albert to be my home — it was where I resided when I began taking the biggest steps into my art career, and regardless of how the city can be, it was filled with people who loved and supported me in those forming years. I feel like I would be lacking a sense of self had I not been pushed to grow like I was.
I’m 21, and I began attending the University of Saskatchewan straight out of high school in 2019. I initially joined for a B.Sc., but I changed my mind and switched to art a year or two later.
I’ve been able to attend thanks to my community, Lac La Ronge Indian Band, whom I hope to make proud of with every accomplishment I make in the art world.
2. What is your background in art?
My background in art has been expansive and vibrant. I’ve been making art since childhood, but I only started sharing my work in high school.
I started with traditional mediums, graphite, ink and coloured pencils until I was exposed to a broader range of activities over time. I’ve since experienced clay sculpture, printmaking, and digital painting — some of my favourite mediums. My best-perceived work has always been my digital art, likely because it’s easiest to distribute and be seen. I’ve contributed work to competitions and strategic projects; some of the most memorable is my contributions to SICC’s Teaching Sacred Languages Curriculum, the City of Prince Albert’s Orange Shirt Day in 2021, and MARTK’D x eBay’s Pride on Sneaker event as the first place contestant in 2022. I’ve always been on the lookout for opportunities, not only to partake but to make my work count. I’m proud to be someone who has worked to support my people and our culture, support revitalizing the languages, highlight movements, educate about two-spirituality, and more.
3. Explain the inspiration behind your design.
I consider myself reasonably skilled with design, where my process is drawing and taking work I hand-make to the online world. Whether I repaint it or use tools within drawing software to combine traditional lines and texture with digital form, that’s how I finalized the work I made for Remai Modern’s Orange Shirt Day design.
When considering the composition of a design on a shirt, you always want something that compliments the body to be a confidence booster for the wearer. I attempted to employ that by beginning with a chevron shape. I spent much time sketching to follow that composition because its angles naturally lift the body’s frame. I reflected on what reconciliation means to me as a descendant of residential school Survivors, and as I drew, I found myself returning to the same few images. I saw the sky, the eagle, children, and connection. At the time of drafting, their forms seemed to almost contradict one another given the anatomy and scale. I had to get creative and take liberties; like with the eagle, where I simplified the details, replaced the matter with a starry night sky, and adjusted the scale in such a way as to pay homage to it and its meaning, while having it as the envelope around the more powerful message. I took these sketches, put them into my art application, and overlapped everything until something struck.
It worked out much better than anticipated. I succeeded with a symmetrical aesthetic to uphold that lifting chevron-like shape I wanted, while balancing intrigue and clarity with asymmetry. The starry night and the relationship between the two figures were my ‘counter’ details; their asymmetry relative to the eagle would help them stick out. I kept the figures somewhat vague with more straightforward art; clearly, there is a woman in a ribbon skirt and a young child whose body is starry – and that’s all I wanted it to be. The art is low-detail; you can’t fully put a number on age or their connection. Keeping it plain enough to allow viewers to decorate it with their own experiences, I wanted them to question it. I’m curious to hear how people identify with the art metaphorically and literally. I tried to push “connection” a little further and made details on the edges of the eagle’s wings where I use negative space to imply that the little figures are together, holding hands in unity. Some have flared feathers, mimicking a dress to represent femininity, some are simply arms and legs to portray masculinity, and in the middle of their alternating patterns are flame-like bodies, representing the two-spirited among our communities.
I asked Solomon Ratt to help complete the work by adding Cree alongside the English. I think having Cree and syllabics in white adds a sense of beauty and balance to the bright figures within the eagle; I wanted to have the text be part of the design instead of appearing as an accessory next to it. I chose a classic black and white palette, the highest points of contrast, to ensure my design is striking against the orange backdrop.
4. What is the significance of the different elements of the design?
There are major and minor elements to the design.
The eagle is something which my family recognizes as a higher form. It’s believed to have the ability to soar high enough to reach the creator as a connection between two worlds. It is the messenger from our world to the spirit world. Showing this eagle as being an encompassing messenger is vital to me because, as a strong animal, I wanted its strength to help us carry the weight that is the impact of and healing from residential schools. It has much significance in indigenous cultures all over the world. It made sense to have it be the carrier of my art’s message, too.
The starry night within the eagle silhouette, and its inverted relationship with the child’s body, is my way of conveying the child as part of that spirit world. To me, it’s a representation of the children lost to residential schools or to the inner child that some Survivors perceive as needing love for them to heal.
Woman and child: I think representing the relationship between loved ones lost to the residential schools and our current living descendants is a core theme when remembering/working through cultural trauma. The healing journey never starts with the day you begin to heal; it often requires reaching back into a time which can be hard to confront – whether that pain is from a directly damaging instance or the trickle down from intergenerational trauma, there is a stage where we need to sit with our thoughts. We must sit with our inner child. We must sit and understand why someone may behave a certain way- there is a need for empathy, connection, and patience. The interaction between the two figures shows that experience to me.
The little figures holding hands along the edge of the wing is a subtle way to convey unity in my art; blending into the eagle feathers also somewhat factors into a more personal ideology, which is having as much faith and respect for ourselves as we would spiritual teachings or a higher power. Still, strength comes from the ability to fall and to pick ourselves back up again. It’s easier to achieve this if we allow ourselves to have the power and belief that we can do so.
The ribbon skirt on the woman is a minor detail, representing how Indigenous peoples dress traditionally in our present day.
The sun-like shape around the hands of the two central figures is a less obvious detail; I lived on the coast briefly and connected with the Nuxalk people when I was a kid. The little eyelet shapes (coastal Indigenous art) around the sun are a small tribute to them and their hospitality. In contrast, the sun is simply the connection point between the two people, which is made more significant given the two worlds both figures are in (overworld/spiritworld).
5. What are your goals as an artist?
I’m fortunate to have had the opportunities I’ve experienced, and I’m proud that I’ve been able to do them justice and be successful thus far. I want to continue supporting impactful projects even after graduation. I don’t see these opportunities as stepping stones to prestige and glory; they are part of the growing cycle towards a better life for our present and future loved ones. I hope to access more wide-scale opportunities and apply for grants to manage my projects, but honestly, I’m pretty happy with how I’ve been doing.
When I finish my Bachelor of Fine Arts, there is the task of pulling off work for an artist’s exhibition. That, alone, is probably the biggest thing I can see changing the course of my art goals. I imagine if I enjoyed it too much, I would be sprouting up with exhibitions and installations wherever I could go. When I like something enough, I fixate and go for it – it’s a helpful quality in this industry.
After earning my bachelor’s, I want to eventually return to school and pursue a Master of Fine Arts — but I plan to return when I’m wiser and finally experience being an art professor. I’ll return to that long-term goal after I live a little more.
6. What other work are you creating right now?
Lately, I’ve been keeping pretty open and relaxed regarding projects at the moment. Having to adjust to new courses and having some commissions coming my way has me seeking peace before I get rolling again. I’ve been doing more self-study and practice in between it all, if anything, because I want to prepare myself for eventually creating animations and stories. I have the beginnings of a graphic novel in my sketchbooks, and I want to give myself the best chance at getting a completed first draft before my 22nd birthday.
Something I’m looking forward to doing more of soon is art for First Nations University of Canada’s site, pikiskwewin.ca, as I get to illustrate character logos for their podcasters. I already made one for ‘Cree & Coffee with the Crazy Crees!’
About Ailah Carpenter
Saskatchewan-born artist Ailah Carpenter has practiced a range of mediums for as long as she can remember. She started as a self-taught artist in traditional and digital arts before continuing to diversify her skills at the University of Saskatchewan. It is uncommon to see her have clear tables, as sketchbooks, paints, and pencils decorate every part of her routine. In the future, Carpenter intends to complete her BFA in Studio Art and later pursue a master’s. However, her ultimate goal is to refine her skills and continue with her work to support the causes she believes in.