Jackson Beardy was born on the Garden Hill First Nation in northeastern Manitoba in 1944. He died unexpectedly at the age of forty after suffering complications following a heart attack. In his short life he was an artist and storyteller as well as a teacher, consultant and strong advocate for Indigenous people and artists.
Beardy was the fifth of thirteen children in his family. At a young age he went to live with his paternal grandmother and learned many of the traditional First Nations stories that would provide inspiration in his adult life.
At age seven, Beardy was required to attend a residential school where he was immersed in the English language and the traditions of the instructors. While there he developed his artistic skills but was forced to leave his Indigenous culture and his language, his very identity, behind. This loss of identity contributed to alcoholism later in his adult life.
After graduating he attended the Technical Vocational School in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1963 to 1964, where he studied commercial art. He worked for a short period at a Winnipeg department store, but health problems forced him to return home. During that time, he started to paint images representing the oral traditions of his culture. The images were not always accepted within his community, and controversy arose over his visual recording of the ‘traditional spoken word’ of his culture.
In 1965 he had his first exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. He also enrolled in classes at the University of Manitoba. His artistic career really took off when he was commissioned to do work for the 1967 Canadian Centennial, and again, for the Manitoba Centennial in 1970. This work was featured at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, but he was denied entry by security guards when he and his family tried to attend the celebration. This incident strengthened his resolve to become a strong advocate for native artists and his people.
Beardy was a founding member of a group established in 1972 called the Professional National Indian Artists Inc. They were a strong-willed group whose groundbreaking work influenced Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Writer Cheryl Petten writes: “Beardy, along with fellow group members, [Daphne] Odjig, [Alex] Janvier, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray, Joseph Sanchez and Eddy Cobiness worked to promote Native control of Native art, and to change the way the world looked at Native art, shifting the emphasis from the ‘Nativeness’ of the art to its own artistic merits.”
Because of their similar styles of working, this group became known as the Woodland School of Art, which is different from the Inuit and the West Coast traditions of art making. The Woodland group’s work was often based on traditional native stories and was characterized by strong black outlines, solid areas of rich colour and the use of x-ray vision to depict the inside of the person or animal. Since then, many new Indigenous artists have gained prominence and have explored a variety of styles and media, but it was this group who initially paved the way for the acceptance of the Indigenous voice and images in galleries and museums.