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Out of a ‘black hole’ and into the spotlight; NWT Arts Week takes over Winnipeg Art Gallery

Karen Wright-Fraser’s earrings are part of the market, which is a part of NWT Arts Week at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Photo courtesy of Karen Wright-Fraser

Karen Wright-Fraser isn’t exactly a stranger to Winnipeg.

“I’ve been to Winnipeg many years ago. Maybe 15 or 20 years ago for some kind of training for one of my jobs,” she said. “I don’t really remember it very well.”

Now, she’s back, this time at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. On Tuesday, she took part in a panel discussion to kick start NWT Arts Week in the Manitoba capital with four other artists.

What drew Wright-Fraser in, she explained, was the chance at hand.

“An opportunity was there so I thought, ‘You know, I’m always comfortable being in Yellowknife and going to a craft sale. It’s smaller and I’m comfortable with that’,” she said.

“Why not go for the experience and see what it’s all about and have to step up a notch?”

And step it up she did, describing Tuesday as a little hectic with all the inventory and organizing that goes into setting up her workshop for the public to see. Still, she said she’s glad she came.

“It’s been a great experience so far.”

But what might be the most important about this event, Wright-Fraser said, was being able to share her story.

“I always love to talk up the NWT,” she said with a laugh. “I’m proud of where I come from and I love talking about our home. That’s probably one of the most important things for me.”

Casey Koyczan moderated Tuesday’s panel discussion, which included Robyn Scott of Yellowknife, Candice Ferdinand of Deline, Cathy Gonet of Fort Liard and Margaret Nazon of Tsiigehtchic. He said that events like the one in Winnipeg are huge for getting artists in the NWT recognized.

“We only got our first legitimate contemporary art gallery last year, in 2023,” he said. “If you were exhibiting in smaller galleries in the NWT for 10, 20 years, none of that would count towards the requirements towards a Canada Council of the Arts grant.”

Some people would even call the NWT the black hole of the arts and music industry, Koyczan added, and events like these are a way out of it.

And for Koyczan, this event is special in more ways than one.

When he graduated from the University of Manitoba in 2021, Wright-Fraser made him a Dene hide vest, he said. But because of Covid, he never got to wear it.

Not until Tuesday.

“I felt really good,” said Koyczan, talking about how it felt to finally wear his vest. “It’s the first Dene vest I’ve ever had and to wear it for this event seems so right.”

As for Wright-Fraser, she’s got plenty of work and plenty of time, a combination she’s pretty pleased about.

“To get this far away from home and be able to sit here - I’m going to have like eight hours to sit here and create. That’s so exciting for me.”

Johanna Tiemessen, the GNWT’s manager of art and traditional economies, stated that the week in Winnipeg was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the territory.

“The NWT Arts Program, through its Artist to Market Program, works with partner organizations to create economic development opportunities for artists so they can share the story of their art and build their creative business,” she stated.

—By Devon Tredinnick