Denise Markonish, curator at Mass MoCA, found Terrance Houle and his work by talking with people.
Houle is a filmmaker, performance artist, fiber artist and photographer, a member of the Blackfoot and Ojibway nations. Mar konish had not originally planned to visit his studio when she came to Alberta, Houle said by phone in an interview from Calgary.
While she was traveling coast to coast to visit some 400 artists, his name kept coming up, and she sought him out. She spent three hours in his studio, looking at his work.
"I have such a diverse practice -- I'm all over the place with subject and medium -- drawings and installations," he said, "... from humor to deeply emotional work.
He felt that his work moved Mar konish, especially new work then about his experiences at residential school. The Can adian residential school system, much like the boarding school system in America, would take children away from their families, punish them for speaking their own languages, and forcibly teach them not to be Blackfoot, or Ojibway, or Cree.
Houle is third generation "residential school," and he has felt the harshness of it. In the work he described, though, in an effort of reconciliation, he talks with students, or those who had been students, on film, about the places they wanted to be -- the places where they felt at home and alive -- places which are naturally outside the schools. One student loves beadwork and making regalia. One loves being with horses, another with his grandchildren, another playing the piano.
In newer work, Houle has lately focused on the buffalo, the bison.
"I am looking at an action that fed my people," he said.
This action was one of the first that was cut off, he explained. The death of the bison changed his people's lives.
The health issues that stay with the First Nations today come partly from having their food source taken away, he said.
In his piece at Mass MoCA, the buffalo stands immense and virile on the wall in solid black -- and the black drips from his beard and the ground beneath him and runs down the wall to a line of black plastic quart containers for oil.
The piece in Mass MoCA is based on health, wellness and loss, Houle said. In Alberta, the oil and gas industries are major employers, and his people are tied to them. Once before, they depended on one source and had that source taken away. They went through harshness, he said, and are still coming out of it. Now they face an oil pipeline going through native land and environmentally protected land.
"You don't know whether the bufalo is coming out of the bottle, or dripping into it, or splashed on the wall," he said.
What: 'Oh Canada' exhibit -- more than 100 works by 62 Canadian artists
Where: Mass MoCA, North Adams
When: Museum hours 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays
Admission: $15 for adults, $10 for students and $5 for children 6 to 16; free for children 5 and under