Ojibwe artist Bush Fellow celebrates community through collaborative artwork – InForum
Ojibwe artist Bush Fellow celebrates community through collaborative artwork – InForum

When Moira Villiard creates art, she aims high. One of her recent projects, the epic Chief Buffalo murals in downtown Duluth, involved over 500 artists and community members, coming from all over to wield a paintbrush and honor the leader who, 170 years ago at the age of 90, organized a historic meeting in Washington, D.C. Chief Buffalo helped preserve the Ojibwe homeland.

Villiard, a Duluth-based artist of Ojibwe descent from Fond du Lac and identifies as mixed Indigenous and settler ancestry, was awarded the 2024 Bush Fellowship on June 11. The award will allow her to take her concept of community art to a broader, more personal level. Her new project, “Waiting for Beds,” explores what happens to people waiting for a bed during a crisis such as domestic violence, homelessness or addiction.

Each year, up to 24 Bush Fellows are selected for a one- to two-year program and receive a $100,000 grant to fund their leadership plan. Fellowships can last between 12 and 24 months. Like several other Bush Fellowship applicants, Villiard applied to the program several times before making it to the final round.

The visual artist works with different media depending on what appeals to her and how she can most effectively portray the message or story she wants to communicate.

Their socially engaged art exhibitions mostly consist of paintings and mixed media pieces and usually include submissions from the community that will form an important part of their new project.

“I don’t necessarily have to teach people the stories that already exist within themselves, but I can create the space where they can be empowered and explore those stories,” Villiard said. “It’s a strange process, but that’s the part I love.”

Villiard said she got the idea for Waiting for Beds when she was young and witnessed her father struggle with mental health crises, often in and out of various institutions. She later helped other family members navigate those systems, with long wait times and few results.

“There’s just a lot of stigma when people are waiting for beds or when people are in crisis and you think, oh, they should just call a hotline,” Villiard said. “The reality is you call that hotline and you’re often told you have to wait. So what do you do in the meantime? And why are our systems designed in such a way that the people who are most vulnerable and least safe are the ones who have to wait?”

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Moira Villiard has been making art since she was a child, but has been working professionally as an artist since she graduated from high school. She created the Chief Buffalo murals and is currently working on her next project, “Waiting for Beds.”

Article by Moira Villiard

Her work will be featured alongside posters she has created to bring the statistics to life – pieces like “The Wait: A Story in Statistics.” Community members are invited to submit objects or artwork related to their wait for a bed. She will also invite people to join her in painting public art murals and incorporating graphic design.

The Bush scholarship is just the latest in a string of awards. But she didn’t have many options at first. Villiard, who grew up on the Fond du Lac reservation, said she grew up in poverty and wanted to work right after graduating high school.

Villiard focused on improving her craft. After graduating high school, she began drawing every day. Her first art show was at the age of 18 at the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth, where some of her work was displayed.

“After that art show, I realized that maybe I could have a career in art because it was like the birthday party I never had,” Villiard said. “I feel like growing up, I was really isolated, so finding ways to use my art to bring people to me was really exciting, and I realized that I wanted to create spaces where people from the arts could come together and share.”

Villiard found inspiration everywhere. One of the pieces she submitted to that first art show was a project she had started in high school. “Towards the end of my senior year, I was dumpster diving and someone was throwing out these National Geographic magazines. I took a stack of them home and started drawing portraits and stuff like that.”

The faces in the magazines interested Villiard. A few dozen sketches she made were portraits based on magazine photos. Her paintings transitioned into surrealism, a style that aims to capture the strangeness and beauty of the human subconscious. As a child, Villiard’s favorite surrealist artist was Salvador Dali, known for his detailed yet bizarre paintings. “I really wanted to be the next Salvador Dali, only without all of his problematic tendencies, which I didn’t know about as a child,” Villiard said.

Her partner in the Waiting for Beds project, mixed media artist Carla Hamilton, said Villiard casually mentioned receiving the grant while she was preparing her exhibition. Hamilton describes Villiard as quiet yet curious, despite her busy schedule. She also said Villiard is a compassionate person who wants to help others.

“I think she’s doing everything at once, because as an independent artist you have to be everywhere and do everything – multitasking, running a business,” Hamilton said. “But at the same time she’s also going through life like a little butterfly.”

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Moira Villiard and Carla Hamilton’s latest project, Waiting for Beds, is touring and currently on display in Duluth.

Article by Moira Villiard

Although Villiard is currently very busy, her future looks bright. With the Bush Fellowship, she plans to spend the next two years at the University of Minnesota working on her master’s degree in human rights. Villiard hopes to conduct further research for “Waiting for Beds” while she is studying.

During the summer and winter holidays, she will travel. Specifically, Villiard will visit art galleries in the United States that she has always wanted to visit but has never been able to because she couldn’t afford it. The National Public Housing Museum in Chicago and the Project for Empty Space in Newark are at the top of her list. Villiard wants to visit exhibitions that do similar work to her Waiting for Beds project, which is data-driven and includes elements of storytelling coupled with community art.

Another goal Villiard has with the scholarship is to visit the Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Canada, where her great-great-grandfather Elias Stonefish attended. “Last year it was confirmed that they have a bunch of his records and they actually offer tours and work with descendants,” Villiard said.

“I’m going to take as many of my siblings as I can and go there to piece together pieces of his story. There’s a long tradition of separation and hardship in my family that’s related to this experience for him. So I’m not sure what I’m going to find, but I know the journey there is a step.”

Fellow artists like Hamilton are inspired by Villiard and are excited to see how far the young artist will go. “She just keeps conquering and keeps rising because she will do good with her art and her opportunities,” said Hamilton. “She knows where to pass it on.”

As Villiard moves forward with her plans for the Bush Fellowship, she wants to continue to focus on the positive.

“If you look at the whole thing in its entirety, you don’t solve the consequences of colonization, war, hunger, poverty and all these big, overarching problems,” Villiard said. “I just think it’s always better to use our time on this earth to make the world a better place.”

“Waiting for Beds” runs until September.

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