Allen Sapp

About the Artist

Allen Sapp was born in 1929 on the Red Pheasant First Nation near North Battleford, Saskatchewan.  He is a direct descendant of Chief Red Pheasant, after whom the reserve is named.  Sapp was delivered into the world on the dirt floor of his grandmother’s cabin, with his grandmother, Maggie Soonias, handling the delivery. It was the beginning of a profoundly influential relationship. Sapp produced many paintings of her during his career.

Sapp’s grandfather, Albert Soonias, was a relatively prosperous  CreeThe largest group of First Nations in Canada, and part of the Algonquian language family. See the Canadian Encyclopedia for more information:   elderAn Elder, in the First Nations sense, is one who knows the teachings and traditions of his/her culture and who can pass on these teachings and traditions to the next generation. The sense of “elder” has to do with life experience, rather than age, and the acquisition of cultural knowledge through this experience.  who raised cattle, seeded hay and produced wheat. As a child, Sapp worked on his grandparents’ farm, and spent a lot of time with them, especially since his mother was away from home for several years recovering from tuberculosis.

Sapp was a sickly child, and at age eight he was particularly ill. His grandmother called in the medicine woman, who said that in order for his life to continue, his being had to be given meaning. He had not yet been named in the traditional Cree way, and therefore his soul had difficulty finding a reason to stay in the body. The nootakao (medicine woman) learned in a dream that the boy should be called Kiskayetum, meaning “he perceives it” or “he knows it.” (Newlands, 2000) The name was given to him during a traditional Cree ceremony.

Sapp attended the  residential schoolA system of schools opened in Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries for Aboriginal children. The primary goal of these schools was to assimilate the children into the non-native cultural system. For more information, go to: The Canadian Residential School System at Wikipedia: A Lost Heritage: Canada’s Residential Schools: Residential Schools at the Canadian Encyclopedia: The Indian Residential School Survivors Society:   at Onion Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan for three years, leaving when he was about 12. He didn’t learn to read or write, but he drew with a passion, using bits of charcoal, pencil stubs, wood, bark, leather and scraps of paper. A shy, lonesome boy, Kiskaytum drew the life he perceived around him. After he left school he worked as a farm labourer, and his grandmother continued to encourage his  drawingDepiction of shapes and forms on a surface chiefly by means of lines. Colour and shading may be included. A major fine art technique in itself, drawing is the basis of all pictorial representation, and an early step in most art activities. Though an integral part of most painting, drawing is generally differentiated from painting by the dominance of line over mass. There are many sorts of drawing techniques, varying according to the effect the artist wants, and depending on whether the drawing is an end in itself — an independent and finished work of art -- or a preliminary to some other medium or form — although distinct from the final product, such drawings also have intrinsic artistic value. Preliminary drawings include various exercises (e.g., contour drawing, gesture drawing, figure drawing, drawing from the flat), as well as sketches and studies, cartoons and underdrawings. (  and painting.

Sapp’s mother died in 1942. He later married Maggie Paskimin of the Sweetgrass First Nation, and he and his wife took care of his grandparents until they died. In 1961 the couple moved into North Battleford, where he was befriended by Eileen Berryman, the owner of a hobby supply store, who supplied him with art materials.

For a few years Sapp lived on  welfare Social welfare consists of government programs which try to provide a minimum level of income, service or other support for disadvantaged peoples.  It is also financial assistance paid by taxpayers to people who are unable to support themselves.  and sold his canvases on the street or door-to-door for as little as five dollars. In 1966 Berryman told Sapp there was a doctor who was interested in seeing his paintings. His meeting with Dr. Alan Gonor, a local physician, was a turning point in Sapp’s life. Gonor bought his work and then offered Sapp a deal: Gonor would buy and resell all the paintings Sapp could produce, as long as he would get off welfare. Sapp agreed, and the relationship continued until Gonor’s death in 1985.
Before meeting Gonor, Sapp’s work had nothing to do with his upbringing or heritage. So, if someone wanted a  paintingWorks of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is either a tightly stretched piece of canvas or a panel. How the ground (on which paint is applied) is prepared on the support depends greatly on the type of paint to be used. Paintings are usually intended to be placed in frames, and exhibited on walls, but there have been plenty of exceptions. Also, the act of painting, which may involve a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's other concerns which effect the content of a work. (  of mountains, Sapp would paint mountains. Gonor arranged for Sapp to travel to Saskatoon on weekends to take lessons from Wynona Mulcaster, an art professor at the University of Saskatchewan whose work is presented in the ARTSask theme, Coexistence. Gonor and Mulcaster encouraged Sapp to paint what he knew and remembered of life on the reserve. Later, in his dictated autobiography, I Heard the Drums, Sapp said it was a matter of listening “to the voices of our ancestors telling of our glorious past, our culture, and what it means to be an Indian.” (Brennan, 2007)

Sapp’s career took off quickly. In a little over a year he had six successful exhibitions, including one in England and another in California. His first exhibition was in Mulcaster’s Saskatoon backyard, and all 30 paintings sold. A year later his one-man show at the Mendel Art Gallery attracted 13,000 people, and all 60 paintings were sold.

Public acceptance was followed by critical acclaim for the sense of timelessness in Sapp’s work, and for his sensitivity to the nuances of nature in the look of the Prairie landscape. There has been some critical controversy, as well. Sapp’s friend and fellow Aboriginal artist Bob Boyer was not willing to dismiss all of Sapp’s pre-Gonor work as “calendar art.” Artist and critic Alfred Young Man suggested in an essay for a 1995  retrospectiveAn exhibition of work by a senior artist representing all the stages of the artist’s career.  of Sapp’s work at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan that Gonor was, “a passive accomplice in the presentation of Sapp as an anthropological curiosity, a primitive, a Noble Savage.” (Dafoe, 1995)

The critical debate aside, Sapp’s paintings strike a chord in the people who view them. Before his death Dr. Gonor was working with the City of North Battleford to renovate an old library building to accommodate a  collectionTo collect is to accumulate objects. A collection is an accumulation of objects. A collector is a person who makes a collection. (  of 80 paintings he had purchased from Sapp. This formed the nucleus of the Allen Sapp Gallery – The Gonor Collection, which opened in 1989.

At the gallery opening Wynona Mulcaster said she had been more of a facilitator than a teacher when showing Sapp the difference between making pictures and making art. “He had it all inside him. I think I helped it to come out,” she said. “You can’t teach art any more than you can grow roses. You can make the ground right. The rose has to produce. And I tried to make the ground right for Allen.” (Brennan, 2007)

Sapp is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a recipient of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit and recipient of lifetime achievement awards from the Aboriginal Achievement Awards and the Saskatchewan Arts Board. He has also received a honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Regina.

Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning