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Wabanaki artist brings colour and culture to riverside with pedway mural

Tobique First Nation artist Emma Hassencahl-Perley is almost finished with a mural on the lookout part of the walking bridge over St. Anne’s Point Drive in Fredericton. 

Emma Hassencahl-Perley is a Tobique First Nation artist who’s been comissioned to paint a mural on the pedway over St. Anne’s Point Drive. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

A stroll along the St. John River, or Wolastoq, in downtown Fredericton has gotten a bit more colourful this summer.

Tobique First Nation artist Emma Hassencahl-Perley is almost finished with a mural on the lookout part of the walking bridge over St. Anne’s Point Drive. 

The artwork was commissioned by the city at the beginning of the summer. 

The mural is covered in Wabanaki double curves, a traditional design passed down from beadwork of the Wolastoqey, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq, Abenaki and Penobscot First Nations that make up the Wabanaki Confederacy.

Hassencahl-Perley uses the Wabanaki double curve, a traditional design, in her work. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

“They’re always symmetric,” Hassencahl-Perley said. “When they’re clumped together they could signify family, community, relationships with people. And I’ve just been really drawn to them.”

Double curves can be found in many forms on Wabanaki art, from traditional media such as beadwork and birch-bark canoes to more contemporary forms in painting and jewlery. Hassencahl-Perley said she enjoys playing with the designs and taking them “into the future.”

“I’ve understood them as our first form of written language,” she said.

Hassencahl-Perley said she’s excited to have a mural in a prominent public space, where people will see it every day. (Mike Heenan)

The designs are painted on bright colours inspired by the sunrise — pinks, oranges and purples. Hassencahl-Perley said she was thinking about the East Coast and wanted to connect her work to the mural’s location.

“I really enjoy the fact that people are excited about how colourful it is. You know it really brightens up the spot next to the Wolastoq River.”

The mural itself is a love letter to Wolastoq, as well as an apology for pollution and harm from human activity.

“I’ve been thinking about my relationship to the river, our people’s relationship to the river as well.”

Hassencahl-Perley is no stranger to mural work. She’s the artist behind a colourful series of cabins at Camp Wolastoq south of Perth-Andover and several other buildings in Tobique.

This is the first mural she’s done in Fredericton, where she lives and works as a curatorial intern at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and an instructor at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design.

Tobique First Nation artist Emma Hassencahl-Perley was commissioned by Fredericton to paint a mural on the walking bridge over St. Anne’s Point Drive. 0:56

She’s excited about having a piece in such a public place where people will see it every day.

Hassencahl-Perley said she loves the physical labour that goes into making a mural.

“Some of these walls are 13 feet high, and up and down the ladder, you know you can really feel that sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.”

Hassencahl-Perley said her choice of warm, bright colours was inspired by the sunrise. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Hassencahl-Perley has been working on the mural for over a month and hopes to complete it by Labour Day, weather permitting. When it rains, she has to wait until the walls are dry to resume painting.

She thinks a plaque explaining the art will be put up once it’s complete.

“I really hope that it serves as a marker for our nation.”

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