Compelling Calgarians: Simone Elizabeth Saunders

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Simone Elizabeth Saunders graduated art school in 2020.

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But her work already sits in American art institutes and museums, she’s won a national first art award, has a prestigious show at Contemporary Calgary, and this year will gain even more exposure through a New York gallery and a Canadian tour.

The 38-year-old’s art reflects her mixed heritage as daughter of a Jamaican father and white Canadian mother.

While mom encouraged her “daydreamer” daughter’s artistic side, dad filled the house with reggae music and Jamaican food.

“That’s integral to the work I create in memory of him, and honouring my culture.”

Saunders’ artistic side first took the form of acting and producing as one of four founders of Calgary’s Ellipsis Tree Collective — Western Canada’s first Black theatre company — and then set design in Toronto.

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She joined Alberta University of Arts, intending an interior design career, but found textile art and a tufting gun (described as a hand-held sewing machine) “the perfect marrying of drawing and weaving” or “painting with thread.”

In the pandemic’s early days, amid protests over murders of black men such as George Floyd, Saunders joined the global online Social Distancing Festival, partnering with American multimedia artist Tikikki Walker on mixed textile art/digital collage. It represents fears of young black men that wearing masks made them look dangerous to the public and police. One of her two tufts — a masked Black man in front of large BLM (Black Lives Matter) letters — was reposted around the world, including by Instagram itself, drawing heightened attention to her work.

“It was a tumultuous time but at the same time it was very inspiring for me,” Saunders says, including discovering the strength of Calgary’s Black community.

Winning Bank of Montreal’s $15,000 1st Art Competition provided financial support for creation of her Contemporary Calgary Unity exhibit — colourful pieces depicting strong Black women on backgrounds from flowers to lunging cobras.

“All my art is deeply personal. In it, I hope young children of colour see a reflection of themselves.”

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