Coming to light

An interview with multidisciplinary artist Percy Sacobie

Featured artist series – Percy Sacobie

Giving thanks by Percy Sacobie

It was with great pleasure that I met with Percy Sacobie for this artsnb Featured Artist blog post. I can remember first seeing his work at his solo show at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in 2019, and it had quite the impact on me. I had this feeling that Percy Sacobie was about to become an important figure in the New Brunswick arts landscape; his work felt positive, different, and accessible. I felt anyone and everyone could relate to his work one way or another. I felt humbled to get to sit with him this spring (virtually, via Zoom) to chat about his work and his arts practice.

Percy Sacobie in an interview with artsnb Communications Officer Audrée Hamelin-St-Amour

Percy Sacobie is a Wolastoqiyik artist who lives and work in St. Mary’s First Nation. St. Mary’s is located on the bank of the St. John river, right across from downtown Fredericton. He has had a steady arts practice which he has developed over the years, despite not being able to fully commit 100% of his time to his creative work. In fact, he may only produce a couple of paintings a year. As a multidisciplinary artist, Percy has received traditional wood carving training under late mentor Ned Bear, an important figure in the Indigenous arts landscape of New Brunswick. Percy’s artistic practice has been paced by the reality of family life and the responsibilities that come with it; drawing and painting became the media he could tackle and explore further over the years. He has a room in his home where he escapes to refine and transform the doodles he created and accumulated throughout the years; only some of them will come to light on his big canvasses.

Little People by Percy Sacobie

Hi Percy, how are you? It is so nice out. It sort of reminds me of that exhibit you had at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery a couple years ago. The birds are chirping, it is the very beginning of spring; it reminds me of those vibrant colours, this aura of positivity that emanates from your work. Tell me more about these colours you use, and is positivity a recurrent theme you explore in your work?

I could focus on political stuff and I could focus on negative stuff; there is lots of it out there. But why would I want to spend my time, my quality time, my limited time, on artwork focusing on something negative? When I do my artwork, I try to be more positive. Creating is my space. I do not want to spend my quality alone time dwelling on negative things; I will let someone else focus on these things.

As for the colours in my work, it was late NB artist and teacher Rick Burns who told me I should start using colours in my work. I used India ink back then, and everything was black and white. I started using paint to add colour, thinking it would speed up the process, but it takes more than one coat of paint [laughs]. But still, I never went back to using India ink.

I notice in your work that there are a lot of cultural elements embedded in the imagery, but the medium you use seems very contemporary, almost digital. There is what appears to be like a bridge between traditional painting and graphic design in your work. Can you tell me more about your process?

I used to draw on paper and then colour the outlines with a black marker, then I would scan the image and print a bigger format, use that print and a light table to draw accurately on the canvas to paint later. With the graphic design degree I completed, it just changed the whole ball game. Now I do the drawing, take a picture with my phone, upload the picture, and re-work the image from the computer. With the computer software, I can use it as a tool to achieve perfect symmetry in my imagery, because I like when everything is symmetrical. I also work my colour palette on the computer, it is much easier; see, I am not a colourist. I can use the computer to select the colours for the work, and sometimes I spend a whole day choosing the colors for one character. Then I turn it back to black and white again, and print it big, and transfer the image to my canvas using the light table. My process takes time, especially when I paint. I use layer after layer, to obtain the flat finish I like.

I am lucky to have a culture to fall back on in terms of inspiration. I use simple imagery from my culture. I can fall back on this culture because that was the culture in which I was brought up. My mother is not Indigenous, my mother is half German, half Irish. But I do not know how to draw inspiration from that culture because I was not exposed to it as a child. What I know is what I use. The imagery I use is quite simple. People paddling in a canoe; it does not mean anything, there is no story. It is just a part of life and how things used to be. That is what I like about it, you can just pick any simple thing from everyday life to create imagery.

The Little Snapper by Percy Sacobie

What do you think is the greatest challenge or the greatest advantage for Indigenous artists in New Brunswick?

I think it is hard for Indigenous artists, and artists in general in NB, to reach bigger markets and to become recognized by the larger artistic community. Also, people expect to see a particular work coming from Indigenous artists. Some Indigenous artists can do “traditional” artwork, using traditional fine arts techniques and media, but often Indigenous artists are expected to draw a certain way or explore specific themes in their work.

You had a solo exhibition at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery called Wolastoqiyik Storyteller, for which you received a Creation grant from artsnb, yet you do not consider yourself an artist. Can you tell me more about this paradox?

I do not like labelling myself as an artist, no. Labels create expectations. I just like to create imagery; I am not an artist. I do not want to let people tell me who I am and what I should be doing. I do not do series, nor shows; the show at the BAG was mostly made up of pieces from the past. I may produce 2 pieces a year if I’m lucky! What I like about creating my work is the space it gives me to only focus on what I am working on. Some people read books, take walks; art is escapism for me.

I received a Creation grant from artsnb to finish two major pieces that were in that show. With the grant, I was able to buy the material to produce those bigger images. It also gave me the means to take the time to finish the pieces. Most importantly, the grant propelled my arts career forward. I feel that today, if I wanted to quit my job, I could do so and live off my art. If I did not have that show at the BAG, my work now would not be selling for double the price and I would not have been able to get this big commission I am currently working on.

Indeed, Percy is currently working on a big commission, which he hopes will be the next step in his artistic career and perhaps allow him to retire from his day job and become, at last, a full-time artist (and calling himself as such too!). This project, whose details cannot be revealed yet, will be his largest piece to date. He hopes that this project will be a sort of checkpoint in his artistic career, where everything he taught himself about colour and imagery can come together in full display. He feels this future project will either consolidate his current practice or change it drastically.

Highways by Percy Sacobie

A skilled multidisciplinary artist from St. Mary’s First Nation, Percy Sacobie creates images of deep personal meaning that are graphically moving, tied to his upbringing as well as local Indigenous stories and living history. He received the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal in 2017 for building a community cabin for those who may need it.

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