Students at John McGregor Secondary School in Chatham are learning to combine art with social activism thanks to their teacher and the Red Dress Project.
Starting last year, Grade 9 art teacher Jenn McQuade brought the Red Dress Project, started by Metis artist Jaime Black to bring awareness to the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. The red dress is symbolic of the murdered and missing women.
McQuade and her students took that idea and created an art exhibit in the JMSS library with different red dresses lining the windows, artwork and facts on the missing women and a focal point that includes a mannequin in a black dress with hundreds of red fabric swatches pinned to it by students.
According to RMCP statistics compiled in 2014, 1,017 Aboriginal women were murdered between 1980 and 2012 and they investigated 164 missing Aboriginal female cases dating back to 1952.
Calling it “art activism,” McQuade teaches her students about art and social justice, and how the two together can bring awareness to important social issues.
McQuade’s students threw themselves into the project wholeheartedly.
Students Justin Gibbons, Lily Dixon and Jacob Foss helped with the project and said they learned a great deal about the issues facing Aboriginal women.
Dixon donated nine dresses to the project and said that the whole class, no matter what cultural origin, still care and want to show awareness that even now, they want to help fellow Canadians.
Foss said he was happy to work on the project.
“I feel grateful that Ms. McQuade was able to bring this option to the table and let us bring awareness. It also hits close to home because being part First Nations, I like to bring awareness to it,” Foss said.
Gibbons agreed that the issue was important and he learned a lot working on the project.
“The fact there are over 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women; that is horrifying to think about and is so unjust,” he noted.
McQuade said the whole process was a learning opportunity for the students; not just collecting the dresses for the project.
“Jaime Black – one of the things she would say is that it’s not just about the installation but the process of collecting those red dresses, and for us I think that will be over multiple years. It’s great these students here will know they had a part in creating next year’s installation,” McQuade noted.
Dixon noted that being able to work on the project in a school environment added to the awareness.
“it’s a good idea to place it here because everyone is so young and willing to learn that growing up, they can have this in their mind and what we taught them,” the Grade 9 student said. “We are the next generation so we have to teach ourselves and be aware of these things so we can go an and make a bigger enough statement, and teach the next generations.”
For Dixon, seeing the fabric on a mannequin brought home the fact that the red dresses represent a human being who is missing or was murdered.
“You can’t bring them back and you can’t undo what has been done, but you can appreciate the fact they were here and you can try to help the rest of the people to understand,” she said.
The students all said the project brought the horrible experience of the victims and their families home in an impactful way.
Foss said he appreciates the passion and care McQuade takes in her teaching and mentoring her students, helping them find their inner creativity.
“I feel that for people who don’t know what interests they have, art is a good thing to try because being stressed out or anxiety ridden, art is a great thing to do. You can try anything from painting to colouring to things like we have done. This may not look like an art piece to some, but to us, it is. This could be more like an act of kindness to some people, but this is art,” Dixon noted.
Gibbons said he feels, most of all, the project was an experience and a way to make people aware of the important issue the red dresses represent.
“It’s nice to be able to express yourself freely without limits and being able to have no mistakes,” Foss said of his experience in McQuade’s class.
Dixon agreed, saying McQuade is open and encouraging and lets the students know there are no mistakes, just your own creative process.
“Ms. McQuade is such an open person and she just understands everything. Being in her class is really nice because despite making mistakes, there is always a way to fix it. She is open to everything and so kind and willing to help you no matter how your attitude is, she just makes you feel like you’re supposed to be there,” Dixon said.
McQuade hopes to make the project an annual event and thanked Gold Coast Fashions for donating the use of the mannequin for the project.