Billy Parrell headshot

Get to Know” is a series that profiles Indigenous artists engaged in Harbour projects. Collective member Vanda Fleury connected with Billy Parrell by Zoom in 2022 to bring you this feature article.

At surface level, Métis storyteller Billy Parrell is making art to give away. Yet in every detail, there is a teaching about patience and the importance of attuning to one’s internal patterns. Beadwork, finger weaving and embroidery are hands-on processes with needles and threads and looping all the pieces together involves focus and determination. As Parrell describes it, “you can’t do it properly if you’ve wound yourself up into knots.” Absorbing Métis textile traditions has gifted her with a transferable skillset she has put to work for herself over the last six years. Billy has developed a wide range of workshops that she shares with other youth through community programs, like the Switch, Stitch, and Bitch event. These well attended events allow for finger weaving and comradery to seamlessly untether the knots that block creative energy and purpose.

Beyond the canvas, the revival of past traditions is an important act of healing that empowers Billy to claim her position within the urban Indigenous community. Producing art from within the creative space of Métis culture, worldview, and entrepreneurship is a place of growth for her. When she is practicing traditional beading, sewing, and embroidery alongside contemporary creatives, it has a profound impact on her art, and her sense of identity. “I feel more present in myself” says Parrell. “It shows you who you are creating for.” Coming back to the circle – physically, spiritually, and metaphorically – is a form of resistance against assimilation and the ongoing pressures of colonization. The canvas of art is a backdrop to Parrell’s personal growth and each defining stitch is a personal follow-up in her healing journey. She says, “I am doing the work to heal myself and my relations. I do that through contemporary art, based on traditional knowledge.”

Billy is inspired by transformative energy and uses it to create. Like the synergy between self and story, it’s where it takes you, and the meaningful insights that bring you back. She is an interdisciplinary artist who embraces a way of life that draws from the existence of shadows, and reflections. But Parrell’s portfolio is colourful, boasting a variety of productions and DIY projects, across mediums with unique aesthetic forms. Her most recent projects in video production and visual art are called forth by the movement of water, where she depicts the dance between depth and light through painting and film. She also works with ceramics and writes poetry and short stories. She is a performance artist who uses video as a platform for self-representation(s), as it fosters a sense of agency and is accessible to a wide audience.

Producing art is an organic experience that unlocks creativity, truth, and power. Billy’s personal process stems from a need to answer a question, and a need for healing. Motivated by the message, the feeling, the idea that needs to be seen, or the gift that wants to be shared, Parrell says “it’s like an itch that needs to be scratched.” Billy considers herself fortunate to have the resources to express herself. Her parents, who are artists in their own right, have offered continuous encouragement and support throughout the ages and stages, from the ambitious child with finger paints to the high school student experimenting with photography and print making.

Grounded by experiences, Parrell’s approach centers on being seen and allowing others to feel seen as well. She has found that art therapy supports mental health and grows interpretations of what it means to be well, and her life changed because of it. It gives purpose to our innermost thoughts, it creates space for expressions of intuitive light, and guides difficult emotions and experiences that impact our journey. Seen and heard in some of Billy’s most recent work, Whippersnapper is an experimental film she created at the Harbour Collective Moving Image Lab at Meech Lake in 2021 and it features her poetry, Pull back:

To reorganize. 

To commit. 

What was that? 

What is it? 

The gum on your sole. 

Sticks. Pulls back. 

Like treading through an impossible vat of molasses. 

I don’t want to live there. In the sludge of my own resistance. 

You see it wasn’t the smoke that made me wild. Full and aflame.

As she likes to point out, “creative agency gives us the tools to come up with solutions, though it can feel counterproductive and messy at times.” Art processes our personal and collective stories of survival, and of resilience.

Parrell continues to develop her voice as her practice evolves. Her thoughts are with those who may be inspired to tell their own stories and she suggests you start with what you know. She challenges people, “to call yourself an artist in whatever you do.” Her work demonstrates that expressions of agency, critical thought, and creativity are the strokes of a meaningful existence and fulfilling career. Getting to know Billy Parrell is a reference to the staying power of bravery in sharing.

Billy Parrell is an interdisciplinary artist passionate about community-engaged art. She teaches art workshops to youth. Her work tells stories about belonging and is concerned with themes of movement and space. As an exercise in privacy and performance, she sometimes publishes work under the artist name motif. This honours the great motifs of her Métis heritage. By empowering themselves to live creatively they hope to inspire others to dream big.

“Get to Know” series is made possible with support from the Canada Council for the Arts, Creating, Knowing and Sharing.

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