Garnet Tobacco


By Marylee Stephenson
Special to The Post

Now in his early 50’s, Garnet Tobacco has only recently had relatively safe and secure housing.
He has experienced the brutality of residential schools as a child in Manitoba.
It was a devastating experience, one that has created a life that has been hard and unstable. But this is what inspired his artistic career marked with all the elements of struggle, achievement, and on-going survival that are the experience of many Aboriginal artists who create even though living a day-to-day life “from the edge.”
Garnet Tobacco is Cree, and his artistic style has been shaped by the traditions of Aboriginal peoples whose ancestral home is northern Manitoba.
The paintings have sweeping curves and sometimes very complex figures. In other works in the tradition there are works where the figures are very simple, with just a few lines and soft colours expressing a complete portrait of an animal or plant.
There may be portrayals of mythic, religious or spiritual beings.
The most well-known of artists from that tradition are Norval Morrisseau and Isaac Bignell. Garnet Tobacco knew Bignell well, and learned from him as a young man.
Bignell’s genius was in the use of sponges rather than brushes to create startlingly original and beautiful works. Garnet and he worked together, travelling in Canada and in the United States, selling their art.
Bignell has since passed on, but Garnet continues the tradition of creating ethereal works, using sponges and acrylic paint, with just a hint of fine brushwork to finish off a wing, a flower, a marsh cattail waving in the wind.
Garnet stays close to his family, even though some of them are still in Manitoba. Art is very much a part of the lives of his son and daughters.
Garnet tells of a recent visit with his 30-something son, who lives in a very rural part of Manitoba.
The son has bought a house there and father and son “painted. Garnet’s daughters are also artists, who work in animation.
He describes them as “brilliant,” and his pride is very evident indeed.
Garnet Tobacco’s skill sharing goes beyond family. He has given a number of workshops in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
Garnet has so much to teach, not just about art, but about how to live a stronger, healthier life as an Aboriginal artist.