BIG small talk is a chance to introduce the Harbour Collective members that work behind the scenes. Sasha Kucas zooms with Jason Baerg for a fun conversation full of BIG small talk.
The alarm might get Jason Baerg out of bed, but their work keeps him going. This risk-taking, collaborating, interdisciplinary artist extraordinaire, drinker of green shakes, and tender-hearted wolf is overflowing with gratitude. Baerg discusses art, Wâsakâm ᐋᐧᓴᑳᒼ, and their connection to family.
Tell me about your role at Harbour.
I work with Liz to advance opportunities for Indigenous Peoples in the Media Arts section. To be Liz’s friend while we work in Indigenous Media Arts advocacy has been amazing. We have been in leadership positions and championing this space for a decade. So, when Liz came forward and said, I think we should do something, I was more than happy to help.
What is your official role there?
I don’t see myself in a role. I do the things that need to get done, which means conceptualizing, grant writing, and supporting the organization. As projects occur, I offer my service when asked. Often it is things like residencies where I serve as Artistic Director. I establish creative directions for the participants and situate conversations so conceptually and creatively, and as a community, we can respond to things and move things forward collectively.
What inspires or motivates you?
Affirmative change, my mother and both grandmas inspire me. My Indigenous grandma would cry a lot for people in the community with challenges. I could see how that shaped my mom and her family, as they were all social workers and educators. We want to see things right, ensure people move forward in good directions, and that everyone has the support they collectively deserve. I do this in my community as an Indigenous person. I ensure that there is opportunity, voice, and truth and that we are moving forward. That is what motivates me. An aspect of my art practice is championing ways forwards; it has a purpose and function.
From what you have created, what is your most meaningful piece?
I have a number of favourites. One work exhibited in Saskatoon called Wâsakâm ᐋᐧᓴᑳᒼ is a stacked and beautiful painting. Inspired by my Indigenous family, Wâsakâm ᐋᐧᓴᑳᒼ means around the shore. The bottom painting is of a circle with a red ochre dot over the top of it and painted while I was on the phone with my godmother. I don’t think she realized how hard it was for me to live in New Jersey alone doing my Masters’s without any connections to my previous communities. Intuitively, I think they just took extra care of me, and that body of work came to honour that side of my family. The larger top panel has this indigo blue and is so electric. It was a quick gesture that happened immediately, and I thought this painting is done. It was this quick gesture, like cobalt blue on black, and it was just perfect, and then there was a leak in my studio, and the painting got a little damaged. I had to fix it somehow. So I got over my fear. Barb Madison grounded me and re-introduced the idea of fearlessly pushing an art piece forward. Ray Robinson, a previous mentor, introduced these ideas of the disruptive cycle in the making process. You know, like defy it and then find it again. So I took this grey paint that felt very metallic, and I spray bombed it over top. This repetition of dots of the whole surface unified the composition. It hid any damage that happened to the leak in the studio. That gesture carries forward in my work today. It became one of those signatures that has echoed through various painting series. I love that work of art for several reasons. I think about my mom’s home community Big River. A beautiful piece chromatically grounded on the floor, it rests on the floor and against the wall. The other painting sits on top. It speaks of our support mechanisms. How the earth and all our relations are really supporting who we are and where we’re going. It’s about connection and relationships. I love that work.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a project called noohkoom kwaashkwaypayiw- Grandmother Bounce. It’s a new media piece centred on 13 circular lights, references, and moons in a calendar year. The lights sit in a grove of trees and honour time. We want to bring in a local Indigenous drummer and singer that could do something specific with that piece. The 13 lights play and respond to sound. It’s going to be really beautiful.
What do you value most in life?
Respect. I think honouring and acknowledging people and where they are. Everybody has had a journey, you know? And I think that we really need to give them, give everyone the respect that they deserve.
If you could re-live a moment in your life – what would it be?
Oooh. I would say I mean life itself is such a miraculous journey, I mean. Maybe some conversations I had with my dad, who’s no longer with us.
If you could possess a superpower, what would it be and why?
Money isn’t everything, but it sure is freedom and a game-changer. I think if we could foretell future numbers would be amazing! We could do a lot of good.
What do you think about garden gnomes?
Garden gnomes remind me of my dad. OMG. Dad was such an odd character with a big heart. He was proper in many ways but would defy that with things like garden gnomes. He did love gardening. Um, but the whimsy of these things, I think garden gnomes’ could refer to little people, maybe? And I think about things like fairies and outdoor energy – medicine and all those good things, so garden gnomes are kinda cool.
You can find Jason at Asian Legend being mindful and conscientious of self-care practices and eating wonton soup as he pushes to find new definitions of aesthetics and researches potential ‘go-to karaoke songs because we all need those.
Jason Baerg is a registered member of the Métis Nations of Ontario and serves their community as an Indigenous activist, curator, educator, and interdisciplinary artist. Baerg graduated from Concordia University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts from Rutgers University and is enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Monash University. Baerg teaches as the Assistant Professor in Indigenous Practices in Contemporary Painting and Media Art at OCAD University. Exemplifying their commitment to community, they co-founded The Shushkitew Collective and The Métis Artist Collective. Baerg has served as volunteer Chair for such organizations as the Indigenous Curatorial Collective and the National Indigenous Media Arts Coalition. As a visual artist, they push digital interventions in drawing, painting, and new media installation. Select international solo exhibitions include Canada House in London, UK, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, and the Digital Dome at the Institute of the American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. They sat on numerous art juries and won awards through such facilitators as the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and The Toronto Arts Council. For more information about their practice, please visit JasonBaerg.ca.