Public parks in Kitchener, Ontario, are popular with Canada Geese. Their presence peeves many human visitors, but local artist Luke Swinson has come to admire them from a respectful distance. “They’re actually really pretty,” he says.
John James Audubon captures that beauty in the breeding pair he painted while emphasizing their “protective tendencies.” (In fact, Audubon had intimate experience with brooding geese. “They would allow me to approach within a few feet of them, although they never suffered me to touch them. Whenever I attempted this the male met my fingers with his bill, and bit me so severely that I gave it up,” he wrote.)
For his rendition, Swinson preferred to focus solely on the species’ elegance. After sketching poses on paper, he created the final digital piece on his iPad using an art program called Procreate. The solitary bird reflects a personal evolution. Swinson is a member of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island, part of the Anishinaabe First Nation, which includes the Ojibwe tribe. For several years, he has been exploring his Indigenous roots by learning Anishinaabemowin words for animals, then illustrating them one by one. His many subjects have included makwa (bear), giigoonh (fish), and ahmik (beaver, a gift for his father’s 60th birthday). But birds are probably most prominent in his work, he says. (Canada Goose is nika in Anishinaabe.)
His style draws in part on that of the Woodland School, a movement that Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau pioneered in the 1960s. Bright hues and interconnecting lines are hallmarks, according to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, a publicly funded gallery that focuses exclusively on Canadian and Indigenous art. With its muted color palette, Swinson’s bird is a modern take on tradition.
The ethereal mist enshrouding the goose was a last-minute addition. “I remember a moment where I looked at it, and I thought it kind of looked like a spirit in a way,” he says. The celestial orb—a common motif in his art—here represents the sun. The bird’s eye echoes the solar glow, as if drawing life-giving energy.
For Swinson, an affinity for abstract art vies with the lure of realism. “I’ve always had these two battling art styles, or art interests, in my head,” he says, and he wonders if Audubon felt a similar tension. “Even though his drawings are very accurate, there’s a definite style. You just know it’s his work.”
Swinson sees his subject matter expanding the more he delves into his culture. “I want to make statements and tell stories. That’s a big thing in Anishinaabe culture—telling stories through art. And the story that I’m telling right now is that of a young, lost, Indigenous person who’s trying to find their way back to their culture,” he says. “As I learn the language, as I learn tradition, ceremony, as I meet fellow Indigenous people, I’ll have more stories to tell.”
This story originally ran in the Winter 2020 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.