The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre was chosen to be the Ontario representative for the Project of Heart – Commemorating the Children for Future Generations phase. The SRSC commissioned Elder, Shingwauk Indian Residential School alumna, and Algoma University BFA graduate Shirley Horn to lead the development of a commemorative artwork. Shirley, joined by Shelly Fletcher and Zenith Lillie-Eakett, used over 3,000 of tiles decorated by Ontario students for the Children to Children installation first unveiled at a local Sault Ste. Marie gallery – 180 Projects. In the spring of 2014 it began its move from that space to a permanent installation within the East Wing of Algoma University, home of the SRSC and the Doc Brown Lounge, which is also home to AU’s Senate. The piece will hence forth sit just outside that chamber in the middle of a small foyer and directly underneath a prominent skylight, which will light Children to Children during daylight hours. At night it will be lit internally by electric light.
When first approached with the offer of the Project of Heart commission, Shirley jumped at the chance to participate. She saw in this project a chance to express herself in a more abstract way, outside of words, which can oftentimes be difficult given the subject matter. The piece has evolved through six incarnations with each one, in Shirley’s mind, not quite right. “It’s too traditional, too literal,” she said. She describes herself as an abstract artist and wanted to move away from the traditional iconography and forms such as canoes or wigwams: “We are a progressive and forward thinking people, we respect and pay homage to our past but we are also able to function in today’s world with an eye to the future.”
Shirley’s final design took the cylindrical form of the drum, abstracted to the point where it now exhibits the form of a round billboard reaching up to the sky: “Billboards can reflect history, past and present, they proclaim, exclaim, and tell a story.” The material chosen for this piece is rusted steel because the weathering and rust conveys not only beauty but resilience through the passage of time. While not a welder, Shirley worked with a local steel fabricating business to realize her design: a tall, round, steel framework into which transparent, spaced layers of plexiglass decorated with tiles and designs by the artists that were then inserted vertically into the four quadrants.
Each panel or quadrant tells a story about Residential Schools, moving from the distant past and into the present. While she does acknowledge the devastating effects of the legacy of Residential and Day Schools, Shirley wants to convey, too, a sense of growth, a bright future, and an affirmation that the children who did not make it home from the Residential Schools will always be remembered and that they did not die in vain.