Sharifah Marsden

Practice Makes Profession: Sharifah Marsden’s Creative Career Path as an Artist

“What made me happy was doing art. I had to find out how to sustain my living with that,” Sharifah Marsden recalls. It’s been a journey, but she found her way. Marsden belongs to the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, a nation of nearly 200 people near Toronto, Ontario, but she lives in Keremeos, BC. 

"What made me happy was doing art. I had to find out how to sustain my living with that."

She is an artist who makes jewelry, paintings, and murals and builds up the local arts community. Growing up in a chaotic and traumatic environment, she found solace in her artwork, painting and beadwork and found the artists and elders she learned from and connected with were peaceful and brought her comfort. She found her home and first love in the arts and from a young age received positive reinforcement about the quality of her work. 

At first, Marsden learned from her mom, then from different elders. From there, she went to Langara College and took their fine arts program. She wanted to take environmental science but found art was her gift and found work in community. 

Working with KAYA, Knowledgeable Aboriginal Youth Association, she provided Indigenous arts programming when it wasn’t available in schools. “I could see the benefit that art brought to me, and I wanted to share that gift with other young people. It was something that saved my life, it gave me purpose and direction. It's very uplifting to create and to be involved in the arts community is very healing,” she reflects. 

In the beginning, Marsden juggled working and creating, unable to sustain herself off art alone. Eventually, made a living teaching, alongside mural projects and Indigenous arts projects in communities. When she worked outside of her own practice, it was at the Wickaninnish Art Gallery for a couple of years, learning to talk to people and connect with local Indigenous artists. Later, she worked at the Spirit Bear Gallery and then the Bill Reid Center as the receptionist. 

She fell in love with the arts and Indigenous communities in Vancouver, finding them to be close-knit. Asking lots of questions and getting to know people at powwows and West Coast nights, she offered to share her skills and tried to get involved in what other people were doing.  

"I knew that being involved in community and by being involved in that network, it brings healing and building my community brings me healing and it lifts me up."

She moved to Keremeos to be closer to her sisters, nieces and nephews after feeling pandemic isolation with a young child. She approached the local First Nation to see if they would hire her to do Indigenous arts and they contracted her to do programming in the high school. She’s doing work to build more cohesion within the local arts sector, providing mentorship in murals and building community capacity to take on similar creative and teaching projects in the future. 

One project she’s working on with younger youth is making drumsticks and drums, painting those drums and bringing in a singer so youth can learn and practice songs. They paint on their drums based on the plants or animals they want to connect with. Later, they can bring their songs to community events. “It's offering them the opportunity to find out what their gifts are, and like lifting them up in that way,” she explains. 

Thinking about what she wished she could tell her younger self, she wished she had listened to the people who cared most about her. Convinced she knew everything, she didn’t heed their advice. Many supportive people told her how much promise she had but she struggled to accept the love they offered without question. Her stubbornness is a gift but it got in the way of hearing wise people’s words early on.   

On her own healing journey, Marsden participated in art therapy to change her life, working for two years to transition through healing through her art. She found her art practice kept her from feeling stuck and kept her moving. She still struggles with anxiety and has hard days but she knows hard times are temporary and to keep going. 

Some of the art she loves creating now is the jewelry she learned to make through a program at Native Education College at a time when her painting sales were slow and the market value for bead and leatherwork was low. She learned how to put the floral designs her people are known for onto jewelry and she fell in love with the process. Now she spends half her time doing that work. 

Looking to the future, she wants to keep doing what she’s doing in her artistic practice, training more young people in community-based art projects and mentoring more people so they can run programs locally. Eventually, she would like to take on more of an elder role, but for now, she loves what she does. 

Thinking of her hopes and dreams for Indigenous youth, Marsden is wistful. “I really just hope that they surround themselves with the people that love and support them,” she muses aloud. She hopes that they find a balance between connecting on and offline and find the healing power of talking together in groups in person. Something else she hopes to see is more balance. With so much talk of trauma, she hopes to see more celebration of traditional stories, drums and things of beauty. 

Marsden believes that her generation holds wisdom around building community and needs to share it, encouraging and supporting youth in creating that for themselves and celebrating through festivals, gatherings and ceremony, revitalizing culture and community safely and courageously. She is open to sharing the wisdom she has about building arts communities with anyone who asks. 

What made her happy was making art and Sharifah Marsden had to find out how to sustain herself while doing just that. Over time, she’s painted a path towards artistic happiness, balancing practices of community building and artmaking. Art brought her from chaos to calm as a child and now it’s taken her to community and connection, bringing forth beauty from hard work and creativity.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
    ,
    ,
  • Province/Territory
    Ontario
  • Date
    April 3, 2024
  • PSI
    No items found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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