Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Leo Yerxa + The World

Governor General's Awards nominee, 1993

“As for Jack, well! I found out that he had been wanted by the authorities in several ponds for his involvement in getting other fish hooked.”

Governor General's Award for Children's Literature (Illustration)
"Racing over the tall grass
Resting in the eve
In moonlight, sleeping
Running again at daybreak
Beating the earth drum
Carrying man."

Governor General's Award for Children's Literature (Illustration) 2006

Jury's comment

"Through a unique creative process, and with poetic honesty, Leo Yerxa’s emotionally powerful images transport us, with the echo of ancient hoof-beats, over the Great Plains. Using the motif of traditional dress and a rich palette, Yerxa creates compositions that illustrate the mystical connection between horse and humanity."


Leo Yerxa
Permanent Collection Spotlight Foyer
Thunder Bay Art Gallery
April 3 to May 22nd, 2012
Curated by Suzanne Morrissette
from over thirty works originally added to the collection in 1984 

LongPen: Leo signs a book (OLA 2007)

 early days in poetry anthologies & visual art catalogues

Renegade: the art of Leo Yerxa
Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre and Centre for Indian Art, 1984
                      i searched
           the places in the
    long narrow streets
                        and at times
i even looked between the sheets,
                                    in the morning
                                            all i found
               was a head    full    of hurt,
                            a dime on the shelf
                                and the devil
                                      to pay


 early days: leo makes money

1976 Montreal Olympics  Series 4

 "In invitational competition, the reverse designs were won by an Algonquin: Leo Yerxa. All four coins depict a First Nation competing in a given event, the engraving of both $5 reverses by Walter Ott and the $10 reverses by Patrick Brindley. What is often overlooked is that all these reverses include standard Algonquin designs, originally developed for quillwork and each appropriate to the subject depicted.
"In order we have:
"$5: Marathon Runner $5: Women's Javelin
"The $5 Marathon Runner includes two stylized quill-work birds in migratory flight, suggestive of the energy and stamina required of the runners. The $5 Women's Javelin includes a flight of stylized spearheads, suggesting that of the thrown javelin.
"$10: Women's Shot Put $10: Men's Hurdles
"The $10 Women's Shot Put shows a stylized flaming path of the sun across the sky, suggesting the flight of the shot put itself. The $10 Men's Hurdles is rather harder to determine but in fact depicts a stylized deer leaping over obstacles in the forest in much the same way the competitor will clear the hurdles."

~excerpt from Wayne Jacobs' article, Symbolism in Series IV 1975 Olympic Coins, Mid-Island Coin Club Journal (details below). My title above links to Wikipedia page, for further details.

today holds the tale of yesterday
 and promises tomorrow
  you were younger then
   today you are older
    tomorrow you will be older still 
     and yet you move on the same trails  
      you see the same days many times over
       colours change
        you grow cold and warm as you move
         you bring onto me what I can take 
          you ask only for my life
           as I wander with you 
            you have been a cold year
             -Leo Yerxa

Leo Yerxa

Ottawa, Ontario

Leo Yerxa
Photo: Rod MacIvor
Leo Yerxa was born on the Little Eagle Reserve in northwestern Ontario of Ojibway parents. An award-winning writer, illustrator and artist, he studied graphic arts at Algonquin College in Ottawa and fine arts at the University of Waterloo. His book Last Leaf, First Snowflake to Fall (1994) won the Mr. Christie’s Book Award, the Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award and the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Award. He is also the author of the offbeat parable, A Fish Tale. Ancient Thunder, which celebrates wild horses and the natural world of the prairies, was several years in the making. Leo Yerxa lives in Ottawa.
from the Canada Council website

O master craftsman of the lakes
who likes bad poems by scrawny flakes
and has a house made of his dreams
made manifest in flowing streams
of bark and paint, books and paper
furnishings of velvet vapour

writes bad poems for chicks like me
addressed to 'Lady of the Sea'  
I met Leo Yerxa during what was hands-down the most fun week i ever spent on jury duty in the arts, August in Ottawa, five years ago.  In our non-working hours, he showed me his favourite tea room in the market, and we browsed books in the shops nearby. On the last day, he wowed us thoroughly by bringing in some delicate hand-made paper dresses, those featured in his award-winning book, Ancient Thunder. Over the years, we've got in the habit of visiting, and this has brought me to his house, which has some of the same feel to it that the tea room had, but smaller, more contained.

When i say "his house," i mean, "his livingroom." As i have already described it, and the nature of our friendship, in my affectionate bad poem in red lettering, i shall just go on to say a few things that i enjoy about visiting with him, and about his beautiful books, to accompany what i found out from my computer chair in researching his multifaceted ouvre.

When Leo works, he creates a world. He begins, perhaps, with an idea, and then he builds. He uses his hands to make things, he uses his mind to dream things, he spills words and arranges them on the page. Then, he goes back to rebuild the page from scratch, experiments with creating new paper, new inks, the perfect new inks to combine with the perfect new papers, on which to tell the tale he is simultaneously in a slowbuild bake of creation, making. He reads a thousand texts to absorb the correct tone, the times, to know the things we used and to recreate the using correctly, to deeply taste the possibilities and the freedoms, all of that which is on the record and known to have been, alongside all of that which a sober, goodhearted person may assume would have been, given how people are in the real world. 

The times. The places. The flow of the river. The shape of the lake, seen from well below the surface, and seen from the curl in the water made by the working paddle of a speeding canoe.

Like a god inventing human beings, horses, plant and water enclaves, landscapes and fish, Leo is finding the stories that show them to the depths, so that even the reflections of the beings in colour and texture and shape and text smell of a healthy humanity. He is making a good world.
as book illustrator
What They Used To Tell About, Indian Legends from Labrador, 1969

Opening in the Sky, Armand Ruffo, 1994

Spirit Horses, Al Hunter, 2002
LongPen signing image source Ontario Library Association, http://olasuper2007.blogspot.com/
Many Voices image: http://www.daviddaybooks.com/Many%20voices%20Canadian%20Indian%20poetry.htm
"i searched" by Leo Yerxa, text found in The Poetry of Politics, comparing Australian & Canadian poetries, http://epress.anu.edu.au/bwwp/mobile_devices/ch08.html
"Today" text from the Balfour Collegiate website,
poem source: http://balfour.rbe.sk.ca/Taylor_today 
for the "twist" on this poem, eg analysis from a Balfour Collegiate (Regina) student named Taylor, look here: http://balfour.rbe.sk.ca/Taylor_todaytwist
Biography, portrait & jury quote from the Canada Council website, 

Symbolism in the Series IV 1975 Olympic Coins: Wayne Jacobs is a numismatic expert. Currently secretary and editor of the "Mid-Island Coin Club Numismatic Journal" of Nanaimo, Vancouver Island , British Columbia, he is the award winning author of numerous articles. The MICC journal are hosted here: MICC webpages Copyright 2006 Wayne Jacobs. This article may be reprinted freely for non commercial purpose only if the resource box is left intact, linking back to us. For the complete article, visit the site,

May update: I knew Leo also illustrated other people's books, some I've read and some held in hand and some, not come across yet in my journey thus far: a sampling of three to suggest the scope of this aspect of his works.  


RK Abram said...

Great overview on Leo and his work Joanne. I have always loved his watercolours which I first viewed when I worked at the Thunder Bay "Indian" Art Gallery so many years ago. Met Leo once, very quiet and as introverted as we both were we never really spoke.

Joanne Arnott said...

It was just good luck that we spent so much time together at work, i guess, so we could get past the moats of quiet to commence with the playful + the conversational.

Same thing that happened with me and you!