Toronto-based First Nations artist begins new residency that will showcase the city’s canyon network

For many, a walk through the canyons of Toronto would just be a fun way to spend an afternoon.

For artist Maria Hupfield it is her workplace.

Hupfield belongs to the Wasauksing First Nation in Ontario near Parry Sound. She is the first recipient of the ArtWorxTO Legacy Artist in Residence program, which was officially announced earlier this month.

Hupfield’s work is primarily concerned with preserving Toronto’s extensive canyon network, which extends for more than 300 km and covers 17 percent of Toronto’s land area. This canyon network has been hit hard by the effects of both urbanization and climate change.

Hupfield has previously worked on projects involving the Don Valley and Credit Valley rivers, the latter of which is close to the University of Toronto – Mississauga (UTM) campus, where she teaches in the Visual Studies, English and Drama departments.

“This is another great opportunity to make the canyons my studio,” Hupfield said in an interview with about the new residency program.

“I feel my responsibility as someone who has an Indigenous position at a university. Part of the work that I do as someone in this role and who has this title is understanding where I am and what my responsibility for this place is. And that’s something I take very seriously in my role as an educator and as an artist.”

She will primarily work with the Urban Forestry Division of the City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation Department.

“What I liked about the [residency] is that there are no rules. (The parameters) haven’t been established yet, so I can come in and that really gives me the freedom to imagine a whole bunch of things,” Hupfield said. “There are often a lot of opportunities, so I’m pretty selective, but one of the things that appealed to me about this particular one was that it felt new (still) quite prestigious.”

Hupfield is tasked by the program to ‘develop creative approaches to sustainably celebrate these spaces’.

“A lot of the work I do at (UTM) really involves rethinking our relationship with the country,” Hupfield said. “We hear that a lot, but how I usually put it, the culture around our relationship changes by place, by country, so that it’s not one of extraction, but rather one of relationship.”

Hupfield’s work has been featured in galleries and museums around the world, including New York, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Montreal, Zurich and Toronto. She said previous art experiences have taught her different methods of creating her final product.

“When you’re in an artistic process, it doesn’t always seem clear how your research can eventually lead to a tangible object or a performance,” says Hupfield. “I’m going to spend some time in the canyons and have conversations with different people that will result in the public artwork.”

Hupfield moved to Toronto in 2019, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve done a lot to reconnect with the city,” she said.

“In reality, there are so many of us who live in these spaces. And one of the things about urban spaces is that green spaces are in high demand.”

Hupfield said access to green spaces is “often equated with wealth or privilege,” with her work focusing on increasing access to public green spaces and highlighting its importance.

Although Hupfield is the first artist to undertake the ArtWorxTO residency program, she emphasized the importance of considering her tenure as a legacy project.

“It doesn’t stop after me. I’m not the only one. It means it opens the door, and then more people will come in,” Hupfield said.

“That’s something I’m always aware of with every project I do. Whether in a gallery or a residency or an academic position, (she is thoughtful) I open the door. I’m trying to be a buffer, but also to start those relationships in a conscious way so that the people who come after that will just make things easier, and that it will also increase access.”

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