Medium: Mosaic, wearable art, installations
Location: Thunder Bay, Ontario
Website: Paul Petro Contemporary Art
(left) Kyoto Bear (2019), ceramic mosaic on taxidermy form, glass eyes, plastic teeth and tongue, 14 x 11 x 18 inches. Photo courtesy of Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto. (centre) Michel Dumont Fyres of Pride, painting. Photo courtesy of Michel Dumont. (right) Colour Blind Justice Bear (2018), taxidermy form, glass eyes, plastic teeth and tongue, plywood backed polyurethane foam, hand tinted grout, ceramic tiles, 17 x 14 x 22 inches. Photo courtesy of Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.
Michel Dumont is a queer, Métis, Two-Spirit, disabled artist and trauma survivor. Common themes in his work include anti-colonial urban indigenous and queer identities. His work can be seen at Paul Petro Contemporary Art in Toronto from May19-June 24, 2023, Mukwa Dodem (I am bear clan.)
1. How would you describe your art?
I’ve always felt my art is all about making something beautiful from the broken. That could mean using upcycled, discarded, or second hand materials, but it could also mean honouring the traumatic and empowering aspects of my Indigenous heritage from my mother’s side or weaving a story of decolonization with an aesthetic influenced by the fashionable French-Canadian women on my father’s side.
2. How do you find and choose the materials with which you work?
Ceramics first came to me twenty years ago when I was newly disabled from a workplace injury. I came across a few ceramic tile sample boards sitting outside a bathroom and kitchen store in a gritty urban alley, waiting to go to a landfill. Drawn by the vibrant colours and the unbeatable low price tag, I scrounged for the pocket change for a bus ticket to help get the heavy boards home. I quickly became an avid collector of discarded free materials. Borrowed shopping carts may or may not have been used! Even though I have material budgets today, my work continues to benefit from my scavenged vintage tile library.
3. Could you walk us through your creative process, from finding materials to incorporating them into a piece?
At any given time, I have this internal inventory of acquired tile in my head, arranged by categories like colour, texture, and decade. When the home collection doesn’t have what I need, I’ve had success making public call outs for donated tile and shopping around architectural salvage yards. When I’m creating, let’s say, an animal design, I knew which pieces from my collection could emulate textures like fur, water, scales, etcetera. During the nipping and carving process I have countless hours to become intimately aware of the nuances of colour and texture. While problem-solving patterns and placement in a design, I’ll frequently dream about the piece and wake up with the solution.
(left) and (centre) Rainbow Two-Spirit Bear (2018), taxidermy form, glass eyes, plastic teeth and tongue, plywood backed polyurethane foam, hand tinted grout, ceramic tiles, 17 x 14 x 22 inches (plus detail). (right) Banff Leather Pride Bear (2018), taxidermy form, glass eyes, plastic teeth and tongue, plywood backed polyurethane foam, hand tinted grout, ceramic tiles, 17 x 14 x 22 inches. Photos courtesy of Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.
4. What was the trial and experiment process like when you first started working with taxidermied creatures?
Polyurethane taxidermy forms off-gas chemicals colloquially known as “new car smell” which I have an acquired allergy to. The condition (known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) forces me to be extra cautious about which materials I can use. Even though the forms I was using initially were over 40 years old, I still could only have one in my house at a time without getting massive headaches from the smell.
Learning to carve the bottom face of the tile was an important part of adapting mosaic to these tricky three-dimensional surfaces. In all of these designs I aimed to incorporate principles used in Incan stone walls, carving pieces to fit as closely together (and use as little grout) as possible.
5. Are there any significant challenges to working with materials such as tiles and taxidermy?
My latest piece, Gigoohn, began as a taxidermied frankenfish gifted to me by friend and antique shop owner Paul at Black Cat Antiques of Thunder Bay. Made in the 1960s, it had the body of a lake trout and the head of a walleye.
In Ojibway tradition, the fins of fish are removed and buried in an act of reciprocity with the earth; giving something back after receiving sustenance. Upon learning that taxidermy from this era used arsenic as a preservative, I was unable to practice this tradition.
6. Are there any new ways or new types of materials you're interested in repurposing?
I’m currently collecting coloured medical pill bottles from across Canada for use in a future piece about opiate use in Canada.
Michel at work. Photo courtesy of Michel Dumont.
7. In what ways do your techniques push conventional boundaries?
My Multiple Chemical Sensitivity requires me to use especially non-toxic materials in my work. Popular new mediums like acrylic pours and resin are all far too toxic for me to even consider. This condition heavily informed my work with queer wearable art. Upon discovering that I didn’t react to cellophane or the glues in packing tape, I was able to turn these disposable, ephemeral materials into reusable textiles.
My back injury requires me to use especially lightweight materials. The nerve damage in my back radiates out to my hands resulting in significant loss of fine motor control. After decades of drawing and painting, my favourite mediums became inaccessible to me.
In the case of Gigoohn, I was finally able to use both my new mediums to revive a dingy piece of 1960s taxidermy with the Dumont touch. Think Queer Eye for the Sockeye!
8. Have you encountered anything particularly surprising or unexpected over your career so far?
On Christmas eve 2021 I was sick with Covid and had just made my first TikTok account at the age of 55. My third post was a mini-artist talk explaining the indigenous design elements and cultural significance of my Regalia Mukwa (bear). After a week of being sick in bed and forgetting all about the video, I awoke one day to find out it had gone viral on #nativetiktok. I didn’t even know what native TikTok was! The personal messages of support from across Turtle Island were overwhelming, humbling, and just so incredibly special. The kids are alright.
(left) River of Pride, ceramic tile. Photo courtesy of Michel Dumont. (right) Mission Indian Day School (2020), ceramic tile, kintsugi, artist frame, 33 x 39 x 3 inches. Photo courtesy of Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.
9. How can galleries make their spaces more accessible?
Despite being present in roughly five percent of the population, environmental illnesses like Multiple Chemical Sensitivity are often not even on the radar of most galleries. Health and Safety policies are common enough, but it’s rare to find policies that accommodate neurodivergence and/or other invisible disabilities. Perfume is one thing, but scented hand soaps, sanitizers, floor wax, long-lasting-freshness laundry scent and hairspray are all products that have forced me to wear gas masks in poorly ventilated public spaces.
I would like to see safety plans that include offering quiet, scent-free spaces, improved ventilation, and ample seating for those with chronic pain or fatigue. Clearly labeled food with all ingredients listed for those with food allergies.
10. Tell us about a favourite piece you’ve created and why it’s so memorable.
Deconstructed Dreamcatcher is twenty-nine lit cellophane spheres, originally created as a chandelier-like set piece, twenty feet off the ground, for Toronto’s Power Plant Gallery in 2019. Since then, it has been broken down and reshaped into new forms for each new installation. Unlike the more fixed forms of my other pieces, this is one we could really play with. Last June at Tangled Art & Disability, eighteen of the spheres were suspended much closer to the floor where fellow disabled artist, Jes Sachse donned ballet slippers and performed a spontaneous movement piece in and amongst the globes. The adaptability of the piece, the ease of access and joy that it brought in that moment, struck me like a thunderbolt. It’s these happy accidents that I love in disability art.
Gigoohn (2023), taxidermy form, glass eyes, plastic teeth and tongue, plywood backed polyurethane foam, hand tinted grout, ceramic tiles. Photo courtesy of Michel Dumont.
11. What’s next for you? Or… In what ways do you hope your own practice continues to evolve?
I would love to get more involved in making outdoor public art. I would love to collaborate with ceramic designers on new textures and glazes. The practical challenges involved in making long-lasting outdoor mosaic pieces (that can withstand Canadian winters) are fascinating.
12. Pay it forward -- tell us about something or someone our readers should know about.
Yvette Cenerini of Winnipeg mentored me through one of my first residencies. As a fellow Metis artist also affected by a loss of motor control, I am deeply moved by the uncompromising inward reflection present in her work. Her depictions of disability and body difference are refreshingly upfront and honest. She told me once we are entering a golden age of disability art in Canada. I couldn’t agree more.