Hawlii Pichette, also known as Urban Iskwew, is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist who challenges “colonial assumptions.”
Through painting, beading, sculpture, and installation, Hawlii’s signature organic motifs bring the beauty of the forest to the city and invite viewers to consider their relationship with the land.
Hawlii’s 2018 artist statement for her solo exhibition at TAP Centre for Creativity in London Ontario, Sign Language: Indigenous Resurgence and Redirections, sums up her artistic motivations. She explains,: “My goal is to disrupt and resist colonial assumptions and inspire those who see my work to look more carefully at the world around them, and redirect them to Indigenous peoples’ knowledge as an act of resurgence.”
Hawlii studied Fine Arts at Fanshawe College, and she has shown her work throughout the country. Londoners can see Hawlii’s distinctive style in the Market Lane group mural, picnic tables at the Covent Garden Market, in the lobby of Western University’s music building, and more, including LondonFuse merchandise. Hawlii also creates colouring pages for all ages, which are available on her website.
In this interview with LondonFuse, Pichette talks about her creative process and goals and the importance of valuing the land, nurturing young artists, and using one’s voice to inspire change.
How did you come up with your business name, Urban Iskwew?
The word ‘Iskwew’ is the Cree (Moose Cree dialect) word for ‘woman.’ It is pronounced “ISS-KWAY-YO”. It was important to me to honor my Cree heritage and language by using this word to describe who I am as an artist. I’ve been living in the city since I left my small community in Northern Ontario when I was 18, so I consider myself to be a pretty urban woman. So the name Urban Iskwew made sense and described me quite well as the Urban Indigenous female artist that I am.
What is something you do regularly that you consider essential to your creative process?
I like to draw everyday, whether it’s just a small quick sketch or a full-on rendering of something that inspired me that day. It could be a bird I saw swooping by my window or an old family photograph. I make it a point to make art everyday. I really enjoy the process of getting lost in the details as I draw. I have an iPad pro that I work on a lot. It’s always near me.
How has your work changed over the years since you began creating?
I don’t think my aesthetic has changed dramatically over the years. I think I have just moved from different mediums and experimented on how I could translate my style in those various mediums. I started as a painter working primarily on canvas. I got into beading almost 20 years ago when I was living in downtown Toronto and soon learned many different techniques, and over the years I began exploring beading on various materials.
I took the advanced Fine Art program at Fanshawe, and it exposed me to many mediums that I had never had the opportunity to explore. More recently, I began working more in the realm of digital artwork and realized that it was becoming my favorite medium to work in. It has given me a level of creative freedom I have never felt before. As you know, I also paint murals and really enjoy large scale work. I like to experiment with new materials, but my style is always prevalent no matter what I’m working with. It’s very natural to me and I don’t even have to make a conscious effort to maintain my style, it just emerges.
Is there a key moment when your style changed, became your own, or when you knew you had something to share with the world?
My style became my own a very long time ago when I started doing landscape style paintings of forests that were deeply influenced by my love of Woodland style painting. People who knew me started saying “I saw one of your paintings recently and I didn’t even have to see the signature– I knew it was yours because of the way you do your trees”.
That kind of feedback always made me smile. I have a real deep connection and appreciation for the land. I was raised in northern Ontario in a family who loved to fish and be out on the river. Many of my earlier works were created from fond memories from my childhood. Now people recognize my style in my florals as well whether it is in my beadwork, digital art, or a painting.
What is your favorite place in or around London that has been a source of creative inspiration or support?
London truly is the forest city. I really enjoy biking the paths in this city. Anytime I’m out walking or biking, I’m taking in the beauty of the land and nature. I love looking at how the trees sway and the different shapes they take. I’ve lived close to the downtown core for a few years now and the Covent Market and Ivey Park are areas I’ve frequented and have always found inspiration along the way.
Have you ever felt a loss of inspiration that made you question your work or life path, or just made you want to start over?
Art and the creative process has always been a healing and energizing experience for me. I don’t think there has ever been a time that I questioned myself as an artist or wondered if I should just give it all up. Creating art is a daily exercise. I live for it. I’m always creative, and my brain is just wired to see almost anything through a creative lens.
When I was only 11 years old, I lost my father quite suddenly and this event really impacted my life. At that time, I didn’t really think I was good at anything, and I was silently struggling. I was constantly doodling in the margins of my school notebooks. It was my wonderful sister Candace who saw some potential in me and bought me my first paint set. This small gift changed my life. My creative force has been a gift I cherish— it gave me purpose in a time in my life I felt really lost and alone. To this day, I would never consider letting go of it, because I’m so grateful to art for all the ways it empowered me as a youth and gave me a voice when I couldn’t speak up. So to answer your question: no, I don’t think there has been or will ever be a time where I will consider another life path. I know I’m on the right path, and I’m grateful for that.
What advice do you have for young artists just starting out?
Young artists are the people I hope to inspire the most. I hope they realize art can be their voice if they feel silenced or just have something to say. Say it through your art; make it your voice. I want young artists to just keep going, look at art, study it. If you ever hear a little voice telling you, you aren’t good enough or that your work isn’t good, please ignore that voice. Experiment, try new things, and most of all, put yourself out there.
What advice do you wish someone had given you?
When I was 18 and applying to colleges, I wish someone would have made me realize that art was a good option for me. I was told to pick a stable career: art wasn’t stable, and I would never make a living doing it. I wish that someone would have stepped up and said go with your passion, take a risk. I ended up here anyway, but I could have been here sooner.
Your designs for LondonFuse emphasize the forest over the city. Your mural in Market Lane also brings the beauty of the natural world to downtown London. These works implicitly question the expansion of the urban landscape and ask us to consider more sustainable ways to organize our lives. What is your wish for the future of this region, and what would London look like in the future if your wish came true?
That is a huge question. London is called the forest city for a good reason. I live in a high-rise and the view is breathtaking when everything is in full bloom. All that I want is for everyone to really firmly realize that we are the land, that what we do to the land we do to ourselves. It should be top priority to take care and to preserve the land. I want to see this region stay as green as possible.
Your road sign project, Sign Language: Indigenous Resurgence and Redirections, highlights the power of everyday symbols to shape our reality. What is one everyday symbol or buzzword (or phrase) you wish Londoners could recognize as strange and powerful?
My road sign series started with a life size stop sign sculpture I created using beads and leather and Cree syllabics and it was in response to my frustration with the racism being faced by Indigenous people during political events taking place at the time surrounding the MMIW inquiry. If there is one everyday road sign symbol I would love for Londoners or anyone really to recognize as strange and powerful it would be the U Turn sign. I think we could all use that reminder that it is never too late to turn things around and make a positive change.
When you think about your recent creations, which piece or project (personal or professional) stands out in your mind as particularly meaningful for you and why?
Of my recent work, the project that is the most meaningful to me is some of the coloring pages I’ve shared to help engage people and youth in conversations around important campaigns such as Every Child Matters. I really enjoy sharing my work and skill set to help people tap into their inner creativity and use colouring as tool to heal and de-stress. Many schools across the country have reached out to me and are using my coloring pages as part of their lesson plans to engage their students in tough conversations and as a way to show their support. This is so important to me as an Indigenous artist.
You can find Hawlii’s work on her website, and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.