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Burnaby artist a finalist for Salt Spring National Art Prize

Michelle Sound's series of decorative drums pays tribute to the Indigenous 'auntie' culture of her childhood

Michelle Sound’s childhood memories are filled with aunties: her older sisters, her aunts, her cousins.

The Burnaby artist remembers the groups of young women who would come over to see her sisters and how, as a preteen, she would watch them get ready to go out for a night on the town. She remembers breathing in the scent of their Obsession Calvin Klein, envying their makeup and their fringed jackets.

“I vividly remember them having all their friends over and being really loud and giggly and just getting ready to hang out,” Sound recalls with an affectionate laugh. “It seemed as glamorous to me as Vogue magazine.”

Those memories from the late ’80s and early ’90s surfaced for Sound in her art – in the form of a series of unplayable drums paying tribute to the “auntie culture” of her Indigenous family, with leather jackets, neon fur, denim and animal prints stretched across drum frames.

That series, NDN Aunties, has earned her a nod as a finalist for the Salt Spring National Art Prize.

Sound, who lives near Deer Lake, is Cree and Métis, a member of the Wapsewsipi Swan River First Nation in Northern Alberta. She grew up in East Van, raised by her birth mother’s sister.

“I had personally always grown up being told your aunties are like your mothers; you’re supposed to listen to them and have the same sort of respect as for your moms,” she says.

A tribute to her family's history

Her NDN Aunties work grew out of a previous series of drums featuring rabbit fur, which were inspired by her kokum (grandma) and her great-grandmother, who ran traplines and supported their families with the food and furs they caught.

Sound decided she wanted to do a similar series of drums to honour her aunties – featuring the kinds of fashion, prints and designs she coveted as a preteen.

“At first, I was thinking it was going to be jean jackets and rabbit fur,” she says.  “It went in all these other directions – a fringed dress is one of them; metallic leather and all these really fun things.”

She sources all her materials in thrift stores, with the help of her longtime companion in art – her now 14-year-old son, Ethan.

He’s been “helping” with her art since he was a toddler. Sound went back to school for her master’s degree in applied arts at Emily Carr University when Ethan was just two years old. In those days, he’d tag along to the studio with her and play or make art of his own.

“Sometimes he used to draw right on top of my paintings when he was little. He’d draw right on top of my painting and think he was helping,” Sound says with a laugh.

Fortunately, his skills as an artist assistant have improved. Now the two go thrifting a lot together, and Ethan has developed an eye for the kinds of late ‘80s and early ’90s fashions that inspire his mom’s work.

“If something catches my eye and triggers a memory, I know this is a piece I need to buy and turn it into a drum,” says Sound, who works as an Indigenous advisor for Douglas College.

Positive images of Indigenous women

For Sound, sharing the positive memories she has of her aunties is important – especially in light of so many negative cultural references to Indigenous women.

The NDN Aunties work was created before the recent discoveries of thousands of children’s graves at former residential school sites, Sound notes, so those stories didn’t play in to her process. But the spectre of missing and murdered Indigenous women looms large in the background.

“It’s not all the way the media portrays it – really depressing, and all these horrifying statistics. They’re people. They’re loved and important to us. They’re not just stats in the paper – missing and murdered Indigenous women.”

She doesn’t downplay that reality; one of the aunties in her own family is one of those women.

“I just want to remember them in a positive way. I think that’s why I wanted there to be so many drums,” she says, noting she’s created about 30 of them altogether.

Looking back, Sound can see how much the realities of Indigenous women’s lives influenced her aunties’ behaviour.

“It was never just my sister going out by herself; it was anywhere from five to 10 girls. It is this gang of them, in my mind. They were together as a group, and safe, and looking out for each other,” she says. “They all got together and took care of each other to make sure they were safe. The sad reality is that they couldn’t go out alone.”

As a young girl, Sound says, she wasn’t aware of that reality. For her, those giggling groups of girls who used to gather in her family home were simply the fun, glamorous and cool aunties that surrounded her in childhood and remained her support network growing up.

“For me, it was positive memories, which I know a lot of Indigenous people have of their aunties,” she says. “(NDN Aunties) was a way to show that.”


You can find out more about Sound and her work at her website or her Instagram.

You can also see some of her work from a related, in-progress series, Seventies Mama, at Fazakas Gallery in East Vancouver (688 East Hastings. St.), where Sound has a studio space. The Seventies Mama series is based on Sound’s memories of her birth mom and the mom who raised her (her birth mother’s sister). The work can be seen until the end of August.



A total of 52 artists across Canada have been chosen (out of approximately 1,600 applicants) for the biennial competition and exhibition based on Salt Spring Island.

The exhibition opens on Sept. 24, and finalists are up for 10 awards: six selected by the jury and four by public vote, ranging in value from $1,000 to $20,000 for the Salt Spring Prize/Joan McConnell Award.

The Salt Spring National Art Prize is intended to “advance public appreciation of Canadian visual art and encourage artists whose practice demonstrates originality, quality, integrity and creativity – resulting in significant work with visual impact and depth of meaning.”

The prize was established in 2015 to recognize and showcase the accomplishments of Canadian artists.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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