About The Artist
in words and pictures
More Than Feathers exhibition, Idaho
At Native American Art Gallery Dallas with Canadian consul for the region
Opening night in Sacramento
with Excellent Frameworks owner, Duncan BC
With Ukama Gallery owner, Vancouver BC
‘I am an artist because to me, to paint or sculpt is as natural as breathing, it is not a matter of choice. It has been part of my life since my very earliest memories, and for a long time as a child, my only means of communication. A large part of what I do now is for communication, to tell the stories of my people, to explain to the world at large what it is to be an Indian in North America. It shows the importance the culture, the spirituality, the respect for our Mother Earth and the role she plays in our lives, and why the loss of these things is so devastating to us. So each artwork is a small story or illustration of some part of this explanation. I hope it will lead to greater communication between our peoples, and offer a voice for the future of our land and all who live there.’
Bio, in brief:
Ice Bear (Chris Johnston to his friends) is a status member of the Chippewas of Nawash at Cape Croker at Georgian Bay in Ontario. Born in 1953, for most of his childhood he was in the care of Indian and Northern Affairs. He credits his art and the strength of the visions the Spirits and the Creator have always given him for his survival of those early years.
The essence of what makes IceBear art has been with him always; as a small child, drawings were his only means of communication. He undertook his first art commission at age 10, for his school, to create a collage ‘stained glass’ window, which remained in place until the school could afford to replace it with the real thing.
Thanks to the foresight and efforts of a nun at his school, who was also the art teacher, funding by Indian and Northern Affairs was arranged so that he could attend the Toronto Artist’s Workshop, created for students with exceptional ability. In high school, a teacher at Applewood High became the first positive roll model he had ever had, and help set his feet on the path to his future. The meagre government stipend was supported by creating paintings that his friends sold on city streets. After completing high school, he attended Sheridan College, but left after one year to join the art department of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He soon moved on to further his practical education at a series of different positions in commercial art and design, including a period working for a leading font design company, Typesettra, eventually opening his own design boutique. He moved to Vancouver in the early ‘80’s, to continue as an independent designer specializing in unique assignments.
With his arrival on the west coast, and his acclimatization to the west coast lifestyle, his early love for fine art started to re-assert itself. He moved to Vancouver Island in the early 90s and adopted his totem name. Ice Bear’s huge public art works (created between 1996 and 2001) have been extensively covered by local media, been front page photos and TV and newspaper headlines several times, and even resulted in an article in an American newspaper. An exhibition in Dallas Texas was partially funded by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs
Although he never enters art competitions, in the early part of this century IceBear was recognized with the runner up Community Arts Leader of the Year in CFAX’s annual event acknowledging those who made notable contributions to the community, the first time an artist had been so honoured, this award normally went to heads of public galleries or associations. In 2006 Metro Parks of Tacoma invited him to a meeting to present him with an official Proclamation or appreciation for his artistic contribution to fundraising for the Pt Defiance Zoo’s polar bear habitat. In 2009, he was invited ( all expenses paid) to show at a one day, invitation solo exhibition in Austria that was a fundraiser for the Lions Club, the exhibition was a sell out.
More recently, he was honoured to have one of his artworks selected by the 2018 Senior Western Nationals Organizing Committee, as a gift for the Lt Governor of BC. The presentation was made at Government House in Victoria (see photo below)
He signs the art ‘Ice Bear’ to separate himself as an individual from the Creator’s artistic gift. He tells those who ask that to take personal credit for the visions he paints would not be honest, he cannot take credit for the Creator’s assignments. To do so would jeopardize the gift he has been given. Exploration and experimentation are crucial to him, to be an artist, he says, one must never stop learning and growing, expanding abilities and horizons.
Ice Bear’s fine art has evolved over the past 20 years, from a graphic style that combined the forms and shapes of traditional Ojibway art, to a free owing technique which provide richly toned paintings which change colour and depth as sunlight moves, and day turns to night. His many years as art director, and over 5 years as muralist have given him a great interest in technique; how paint ‘works’, colour, brush-strokes, and layering, some Ice Bear paintings have close to 20 layers of paint and medium. His work has great depth of field and dimension, which comes from his other artistic passion.
Ice Bear is also a sculptor, working in diverse materials, cedar, monkey puzzle tree, Winterstone, resins, natural stone, and has introduced his first 3 limited edition bronze sculptures. He has also pioneered a modern revival of an ancient technique, combining sculpture and fine art painting in a number of murals and large paintings, providing a bas relief effect that has viewers reaching out to touch.
Chris has been called ‘the wizard’ by clients commissioning his talent, for his unique ability to listen, to understand and share a client’s vision, and to bring it to reality, even when the client is not fully able to express that vision in words.
IceBear’s paintings and sculpture explore the relationship of mankind to his world, and his spiritual connection to it. In the tradition of most Woodlands peoples, and many other aboriginal people of the world, the Creator and Spirit are not entities separate from us, but exist within us and within every living thing, animate and inanimate. Their traditional teachings tell us that only by Acknowledging the Creator, and the Spirit that dwells in all things, can we truly understand and respect not only ourselves, but our world, our Mother Earth.
Modern humans in this technological world are becoming more and more disconnected to that which is most basic to our continued existence, and as we loose that connection we also loose understanding and respect. Without that respect, humans are destined to bear the brunt of Mother Earth’s reprisals; warning signs are now appearing all over the planet, but most humans are still not listening.
I have not chosen art, the painting and sculpture. It is a task, a responsibility if you will, given me by the Creator from birth. As a small child removed from home and family, speaking no English and placed in foster care in Toronto, drawing was often my primary means of communication. The elders of my people, whom I met for the first time a few years ago, tell me that even as a toddler, I drew. I am, they say, what the Anishinabe call a Dreamer.
Sculpting is not a choice of one art form over another, although it sometimes comes easier for me. The images in my spiritual works, which include sculpture, come to me as visions, each a separate individual with its own life, often complete, and as perfectly formed and visible to me as stone picked off the beach. They can be turned, moved, looked at from various perspectives; from that ‘seeing’ comes the understanding of whether the spirit of this particular vision is to be expressed in two or three dimensions.
I learned much about sculptural products while creating the bas reliefed murals in Sidney and Victoria, starting with resin and expanding foam, moving to structural foam and fibreglass, then acrylic stucco, and eventually to a major sculpture that utilized all of these as well as a few other new materials.
My study of various materials and methods has resulted in some exciting new possibilities. The bas reliefed murals in Sidney were the first of their kind, and at the time had artists from all over the continent contacting my studio to find out how they were done.
I believe that as an artist, to be an artist, is to continue to learn, explore, expand one’s knowledge and skills. This means constantly testing, pushing the boundaries of both one’s own skills and the products available.
For me, to ever be confined to one genre, palette, or family of products would be impossibly stifling. The creation of Art is a lifelong adventure, to be explored and savoured, Each vision has a life and presence of its own, and demands its own unique way of being presented to the world.
It is my task, my obligation, to be the instrument of that presentation..
Weather is never allowed to interfere with the art
It gets on with a little help from our friends
A presentation at Government House in Victoria..AP#1 of Northwest, gifted to the Lieutenant Governor by the Canadian Tennis Association, in thanks for hosting the reception for a national tournament
The man in the middle of this photo is Jim Henderson, the artist’s high school art teacher and first positive male roll model in his life. IceBear credits him with saving his life in the days when he was an angry and troubled teen. Many decades later, teacher found his student with the help of an internet savvy friend, and flew from Ontario to visit the person he said considered his most promising student. They spent a wonderful week together.