Allen Sapp

Re-printed with permission from the Allen Sapp Gallery: The Gonor Collection which is open to the public.

Allen Sapp was born in the winter of 1928 on the Red Pheasant Reserve in north central Saskatchewan. He was a weak and sickly child born to a mother who herself had to fight for her life and who eventually died of tuberculosis. Allen was raised and cared for by Maggie Soonias, his grandmother. The memory of this tender relationship has spawned in Sapp some of his finest and most sensitive works, bringing to his canvas a sense of affection and love rarely communicated or seen in the twentieth century art world.

Allen was often sick as a child and was picked on by other children. He never learned to read or write but found refuge and satisfaction in drawing pictures. When he was eight years old and suffering again from a childhood illness, the Nootokao (old matriarch) had a dream in which Allen was threatened seriously with death. She was compelled to bestow a Cree name upon him. She touched his forehead as he slept and called him Kiskayetum (he perceives-it).Allen Sapp
As Allen grew older he grew in this gift of perceiving and more and more found great satisfaction in painting and drawing. At the age of fourteen he was stricken with spinal meningitis. The recovery from this near fatal illness was slow and exhausting, but the Nootokao had promised he would not succumb to illness, but live to make Naheyow (the people) proud of him and become a blessing to both the Naheyow and the white race. There was a purpose for this frail one who made such a determined effort to live. One day he would be instrumental in communicating what could never be said in words; a message to people, white, Indian and eventually through the world over; a message that tells the viewer of the quiet and gentle people and their determined struggle to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment during the Great Depression. By 1945 the depression had taken its toll on Allen's own family; four of his seven brothers and sisters had died including Allen's favorite brother John who died of tuberculosis at the age of thirteen. The deaths, Allen's own grave illness and the poverty of all combined to make Allen want to leave the reserve and live in North Battleford. It would be over a decade before he could make the move. In 1955 Allen was married. His wife spent several years in the Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Prince Albert. It was there in 1957 their son David was born.
Sapp's sensitive depiction of his own people and their passing way of life has not always been the subject of his canvas. In his effort to survive as an artist, Allen struggled with many things from the content of his painting to his own identity as a Cree. It was between 1961 and 1966 that this struggle reached its peak. Allen, his wife and son had moved from the reserve into North Battleford and rented a humble upper story of a house. In this flat Allen set up his easel and began to paint. It was here, Allen was sure, he would be able to provide for his family as an artist. While peddling his paintings on the street, in an effort to gain prominence and respectability in a white man s world, Allen had changed. His hair was short, he wore ill-fitted suitcoats and black horn-rimmed glasses. Although he could speak very little English, his image had been tailored to what he felt the white man would accept. His paintings themselves denied the past and had become mostly calendar art with mountains and streams and animals Allen had only seen in pictures. This effort to satisfy a fickle white culture in order to survive began to erode the essence of who Sapp was and tear away at the true and authentic experience of his Cree ancestry.
One winter morning in 1966, Sapp ventured timidly into the North Battleford Medical Clinic trying to sell his paintings to the doctors. There he met the clinic's director, Doctor Allan Gonor. This meeting was to begin a relationship that would change both men's lives. Allan Gonor immediately saw a depth and possibility in Sapp's work that fascinated him. It was on Allen's second visit to Doctor Gonor that the painting of Chief Sam Swimmer caught his eye. He bought it at once and gave him a little extra money for supplies. "This is much better," I told him, "you should paint what you know, you are a Cree Indian." Doctor Gonor asked Allen if he would paint more of the people and places he remembered from the reserve and in so doing opened the door to a place in Allen Sapp's soul. At first the paintings seemed to just pour out.
Doctor Gonor had hoped to buy what Allen could produce but quickly realized that Allen was painting one or two paintings a night. Doctor Gonor began to seek advice from professionals across Canada in order to assist Allen. It was not without reservation that Sapp was painting the memories of his past, for he had come to know the cynical nature of the white man and was deeply afraid that he and his people would be laughed at. It was through the encouragement of people like Wynona Mulcaster, an art professor at the University of Saskatchewan, that Allen's fears were soothed. Doctor Gonor had arranged to drive Allen to see Wynona upon the advice of the director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Doctor Ferdinand Eckhardt. After many of those trips and many discussions about content and technique, Wynona and Doctor Gonor felt Allen had begun to grasp the value of his roots and the virtue of his past as it really was.

In September of 1968, Wynona invited Allen to show his paintings on the grounds of her home in Saskatoon. In spite of the weather, the show was a great success, but this favorable response from a largely artistically cultured crowd in no way prepared them for the overwhelming public response to his first major exhibition only seven months later. It was Easter weekend at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon; a show of sixty-one oils and acrylics had been assembled and hung. When the doors finally opened that weekend some 13,000 viewers passed through the gallery. At the conclusion of opening night most of the sixty-one paintings had been sold. That Easter weekend in 1969 began an explosion of interest and fascination with Sapp's work that resulted in shows from London, England through to most major cities in Canada and cities in the United States including New York and Los Angeles. Allen Sapp had come of age. Reviews on his shows came from all quarters. He was applauded by the public as a 20th century painter they could relate to and by the critics as a painter whose style created "illusionism so arresting as to constitute a revelation". (Daily Telegraph of London, 1969). By now Allen himself had begun to grasp the full implications of his success, but his reaction was modest and in character. He had found in painting his memories and his people a sense of pride in who he was and where he had come from and so began his own journey in becoming the Cree Indian he had discovered within. Allen had begun to discard his white man's appearance. He let his hair grow into long braids that he tied up with deerskin. He began to wear denim cowboy boots, beaded medallions and a headband along with his cowboy hat. He was a descendant of the great Chief Poundmaker and had begun to understand the pride of being able to live that. It was during that period that Allen observed simply "better to be a good Indian then a poor white man." So Allen became that "good Indian", but fate also held that he was to become an Indian of central importance to the preservation and renaissance of his own culture. In May of 1976, Allen visited New York to attend the opening of h s show at the Hammer Galleries. Diana Loercher of the Christian Science Monitor observed of Sapp and his work, "He had great reverence for the land, a tradition in Indian Religion, and derives much of his inspiration from nature. A radiant light permeates most of his paintings.... It is evident that not only his art but his identity is deeply rooted in Indian culture." It was this deeply-rooted identity that acted to stabilize Allen during these years of great attention and ensured his values and priorities remained true. As Doctor Gonor observed: ''His values have not changed. Because of the traditional Indian belief in sharing, he uses his car as a taxi and cares more about participating in religious ceremonies and dances then painting. Even though he cannot keep up with the demand." The significance of Sapp's return to his roots and the stability and vision it offered him cannot be understated. But aside from Sapp's own heritage the other important influence and stabilizing factor in his life was the deep and wonderful friendship that grew between himself and Doctor Allan Gonor.

To the outside observer, the importance of the Sapp-Gonor relationship became largely overshadowed by the emergence of Sapp himself. At each new show the focus became more clearly fixed on Allen Sapp, his gift, and its value to all Canadians. In Ottawa, then Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chretien stated, "He has made a great contribution to the cultural background of his own people." Others described Sapp's work as "a story (of his people) more vivid on canvas than has been told by hundreds of printed words... he must be credited with having already done a real service to his people..." (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix). "Allen has developed a powerful language that communicates better than words," observed Winona Mulcaster and what was equally important was the timeliness of his message.

By 1974 Allen Sapp had found commercial success and had attained widespread attention. He had been the subject of a book Portrait of the Plains by then Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta, Grant MacEwan. His life and art was also the subject of a CBC and a National Film Board documentary, and he had met a number of important people including the Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. All of these events gave evidence of his popularity and the respect he had gained as an artist, but little did he know he was about to experience one of his greatest milestones as an artist.

In December 1985, Allen Sapp was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (R.C.A.A.). Election to the R.C.A.A. means something far beyond commercial success for an artist. The historic role pursued by the R.C.A.A. through the years has been to maintain the highest standards in the cultivation of the fine and applied arts in Canada. Members of the R.C.A.A. represent a cross-section of Canada's most distinguished artists. Election to membership is the acknowledgment of the quality and value of Sapp's work by one of the most demanding and discriminating groups concerned with the arts in Canada, his own peers. As each new award or acknowledgment came, Allen's reaction remained modest and simple. In 1980 he met Princess Margaret and presented her with one of his paintings. In 1981, a book A Cree Life The: Art of Allen Sapp was released and found its way across Canada as a very popular bestseller. These and many other events all helped to maintain the focus on Sapp's contribution as an artist. 1985 was the year that began a subtle but important change in what was to be the way his contribution as an artist was viewed. It was this same year he was to face the news that his good friend and patron, Doctor Allan Goner, had died while visiting in Thailand. Allen Sapp, from a very early age, had come to know and experience the death of others as an inevitable part of life. He, himself, had experienced the death of many members of his own family and had struggled deeply with the loss of loved ones. It was his determination and strength of character that seemed to guide Allen through these difficult times. This strength of character made Allen not only a good and valued artist but a person of exceptional value to his whole community. It was that aspect of Allen's contribution which began to emerge and the community that was to call him their own began to expand far beyond the bounds of the Red Pheasant Reserve or the City of North Battleford. On December 5, 1985, Allen Sapp became one of the first eight recipients of the Saskatchewan Award of Merit. This award is given in recognition of individual excellence and/or contributions to the social and economic well-being of the province and its residents. It was one of the first indications that Allen Sapp's contributions, not only as an artist but as an individual, were being felt. There was a building awareness that somehow Sapp's contributions were not just limited to exceptional art. He had become recognized as a significant force in the renaissance of the Indian culture. His art clearly had the ability to cross cultural barriers and, not only acted as a beacon for aspiring native artists, but also as a vehicle for other cultures to comprehend the Indian way of life.

It came as no surprise that in 1986, at the "New Beginnings" Native Art Show in Toronto, Allen Sapp was singled out as one of the Senior Native Artists in Canada, "whose contributions to the present renaissance of native art and culture will only be measured by history." That simple observation seemed almost prophetic in light of what was about to occur. In January 1987, the Governor General of Canada appointed Allen Sapp an Officer to the Order of Canada as a means of recognizing outstanding achievements and honoring those who have given service to Canada, to their fellow citizens or to humanity at large. After more than half a century, the prophetic words spoken by the Nootokao, who had placed her hand upon his forehead as Allen lay sick, had now come to pass. "'There was a purpose for this frail one, who made such a determined effort to live.... He had made the Naheyow proud of him and had become a blessing to both the Naheyow and the white race." The opening of the Allen Sapp Gallery: The Gonor Collection is truly but another page in what has become one of the most fascinating stories in Canadian Art History. The importance of the gallery as a signpost for aspiring artists and as a vehicle in the promotion and conservation of our Canadian heritage cannot be overstated. But possibly the most important role this gallery will play through the art of Allen Sapp is to provide a bridge for healing and quiet dialogue between white and native cultures thereby creating a deep understanding and respect not otherwise possible.

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National Aboriginal Achievement Awards

Reprinted with permission from
Eagle Feather News - April 1999 - pg. 7

Allen SappDr. Sapp is from the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan. His paintings are famous across the world and is considered to be among the best in the world of Aboriginal painters. Sapp's commercial success began when he sold some of his paintings to North Battleford's Dr. Allen Goner. In 1989 the Allen Sapp Gallery-Goner Collection opened in his honour and he has been the subject of numerous documentaries and profiles. He has stayed involved with the youth, taking time to warn them of the dangers of drugs and alcohol. He has been a champion of the Native Heritage Founadation.

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Grandmother believed in boy's artistic talent

By Joan Black

Reprinted with permission from
Saskatchewan Sage - April 1999 - pg. 13

Some things about Allen Sapp you should know. He has stayed true to his vision, all his life it seems like, becoming materially successful on his own terms. The other things you should know is that he is proud to be an Indian and he is proud of what he has accomplished as an artist, but he never fell into the trap of producing knock-off "Native art" to make a buck. In fact, he used to be criticized sometimes for not painting the stereotypical Norval Morrisseau derivatives that gallery hoppers buy from some other Indians as "the real stuff."

Today, Sapp's portrayal of rural life on the Red Pheasant Indian Reserve in the Saskatchewan of the first half of this century has come into its own. You know when you view one of Sapp's pictures you are seeng a slice of his reality and not a copy of somebody else's. It's the real Plains Cree life of days gone by, which Sapp is painstakingly recording so people don't forget. Sapp's culture and heritage are set down in every brush stroke. All you have to do is look.

Many have, and many have recognized the same talent that Sapp's grandmother, Maggie Soonias, believed in and encouraged more than 60 years ago. His art is and has been exhibited and sold in galleries around the world, recently in the trendy Yorkville Avenue district of Toronto. There is also a permanent collection of his works in a gallery baring his name in North Battleford, Sask., where he lives. A retrospective of his work toured Canadian cities for two years before closing at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 1996. Many honors have come to Sapp as a result of his lengthy artistic career.

In 1975, for instance, Sapp was elected to membership in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, which recognized his "outstanding achievements in the visual arts field."

Diane Rosenthal, director of the Hollander York Gallery in Toronto, prices Sapp's paintings into the thousand of dollars now. She describes them as "focused, celebrating a family-centred time . . . an optimistic look at his life as a child on the reserve - nostalgic and . . . a little bit impressionistic."

Rosenthal reinforces that Sapp's art is grounded in the daily life of his people in the 1930s and 1940s, when they still lived without modern conveniences; it does not reflect the mythological themes of a lot of Native art.

It is the nature of the business that there have always been some critics, though.

"Sometime people say I have painted too many winter scenes," Sapp explains; "but nobody says the Group of Seven painted too many landscapes." Sapp still enjoys doing what he does and that seems to be enough for most people.

But there is more to Allen Sapp than his paintings. Aboriginal people are proud that he maintains his strong cultural ties and provides a positive, progressive array of Indian values their youth can carry into the next century. He speaks his Cree language and he is proud to be a traditional dancer, too, Sapp will tell you.

In 1985, Sapp became one of the first recipients of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit; in 1987 he was named Officer of the Order of Canada; and in 1996 the Saskatchewan Arts Board gave him the Lifetime Award for Excellence in the Arts. Last spring, the University of Regina bestowed on Sapp an honorary doctorate. Along the way, three books reproducing his art, and a number of film documentaries have brought Sapp's perspective on life to the world. On March 12, the Aboriginal people of Canada recognized Sapp's great legacy and contribution, by selecting him for the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Sapp's manager, John Kurtz, related how Sapp enjoys sharing his good fortune with others. He has donated his time and his art to worthy causes, and he cares a lot about helping children, Kurtz said.

That means passing on stories in the traditional Cree way. Sapp urges children to learn all they can about their culture, so it will provide them strength throughout life. And, Sapp adds earnestly, he tells them to get an education, to "listen to their parents and teachers -- to learn English and Cree."

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Allen Sapp

Links: (click on X in top right corner of outside link to return to photo gallery)

Allan Sapp Gallery

Well-Known Indian Artist Elected to R.C.A.A. Allen Sapp

Allen Sapp Art Gallery

2000 People of Honour

"Went to get some water", Allan Sapp

"Working in the Field", Allan Sapp

Allan Sapp - Grandmother believed in boy's artistic talent

"Pulling a Log", Allan Sapp

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