Sonia Burke-Smith is a well-known name in our community when it comes to visual arts, Indigenous awareness activities, and arts education.
With over 100 group exhibitions, arts/crafts sales, and art expos to her name since 2009, Sonia’s third solo exhibition, Rise, is now at the Kirshner Family Community Gallery at MacDonald Island Park, officially opening on November 9, 2022 at 6 p.m.
A long-time resident of Fort McMurray, Sonia moved here in 1977, and despite leaving for “periods of time,” was “always pulled back (because) Fort McMurray has become home.”
Her artistic career started with jewelry-making. Drawing became her medium in 2003 as she recovered from an illness and began the journey to sobriety.
“I was working in the emergency department at the hospital when I recognized the healing power of art. Early on in my career, I drew a lot of colourful suns and eagles as they uplifted people. It was a hobby for me until 2009 when I was hired by the Learning Through The Arts (LTTA) program with the Royal Conservatory of Music where I trained to become an art educator. Through that training, I made a commitment to become a professional artist. I spent the next seven years perfecting my style and in 2017 was registered with the Canada Council for the Arts as a professional artist,” shares Sonia.
Partial to painting, Sonia’s first solo exhibition was hosted at the local Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre. Rise, which has 63 pieces, is an acknowledgement to the many obstacles she overcame beginning with the 2016 wildfires when she lost her home, and all her work.
“I had to spend a year away because I couldn’t afford another home. I didn’t have a good insurance experience, so I really did have to find the strength to accept things like losing my work and family photos. It was hard. I had to find the courage to rebuild,” recalls Sonia.
“It was a super rough time. I lost a family member to suicide, had another who suffered through mental health and addiction issues and so many friends leaving us. I felt depleted, depressed, and unsure of my future. For a time, I couldn’t afford painting supplies, so I went back to crafts, made jewelry, and sold that. Then I bought painting supplies, it felt like a redo of my life. I finally got to come home and then many artists who left the region donated to me what they couldn’t take, so slowly I started to rise from that devastation, depression and hurt.”
Returning home to Fort McMurray was Sonia’s “journey to creating and healing. I am forever grateful to those artists because I truly needed to be creating as part of my healing – mentally, emotionally, and physically. Rise is about the imperfections life hands us and learning to get back up anyway, believe you can start with one foot in front of another. There are days you can rock it, others you can barely comb your hair. Show up anyway; most of all be gentle with yourself, allow yourself the slack and gentleness so you may be gentle to others. This is especially important as we all are now rising up from the pandemic and we are still in very uncertain times. Rise is about the journey, the work I created is about all the issues along the way, my faith, and what I did to overcome my obstacles. I am very grateful to start a small conversation and share my thoughts through this show.”
Commenting on her favourite pieces from the exhibition, she continues, “my favourite ones are the collaboration piece with the Fort McMurray Islamic School called 7 Rays. Our concept was based on: we all live under the same sun on Native Land. The seven rays represent the seven teachings, and the values are universal. There are many ways to interpret the creator with open hearts and minds we are capable of respecting our differences. Get your laws off our bodies is another piece that started in anger, but a reminder we are life givers. We carry the codes just as the ancestors, water, the earth, sun, moon, and stars do. Though we are experiencing oppression, gender violence, laws taking away our rights and being hurt in wars, we must hold on to our esteem, honour ourselves, never pick up the sword against each other for we are the life givers, and we deserve equality.”
Finally, Sonia wants everyone to visit the exhibition, because she hopes that “by being vulnerable about my healing journey I encourage others to explore, express, and honour their healing journey, and what is right for them. I also have included pieces about women’s rights and the decline we are seeing worldwide at this time. My hope is – as women we find our way to supporting each other and rise up to the challenge of inequality we are seeing.”
Theresa Wells, Manager, Communications and Stakeholder Relations for the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo, home to the gallery, notes, “we are delighted to welcome Sonia’s show to the Kirschner Family Community Art Gallery at MacDonald Island Park as Sonia is a well-known local artist with an established audience and following. This exhibition showcases her story of recovery and rising after the 2016 wildfire, which many in our community can relate to given their similar experiences. We hope the community will visit the gallery to view the exhibition and experience Sonia’s works!”
About the author
Kiran is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.