In the late 1960s, Andrew Jackson Steen – who is now nearly 80 – created a large and distinctive portrait of the government of the Northwest Territories of the day.
He said he loaned the four-foot by six-foot painting to the county government for an event at Yellowknife’s town hall in 1970, posed with it in front of the crowd, and never saw it again.
The event was part of the NWT’s Centenary, which was held to mark the 100th anniversary of the handover of much of Canada, including much of the Northern and Central Provinces, by Hudson’s Bay Company to the Dominion. or Canada. It came three years after Canada’s centenary, which was celebrated across the country.
Decades later, the question of what happened to the painting still haunts him.
“I was proud, that’s all. I had made my personal contribution to the centenary,” said Steen, who is Inuvialuit. “It’s really weird that nobody knows about it.”
Steen fears that someone has run away with his artwork, without realizing its value to the area, as happened with the papal flag used during the pope’s 1984 visit to Fort Simpson, NWT
“It never occurred to me that the flag would be given to the community,” Chuck Tackaberry, a government official at the time, told CBC last year.
In 2021, the flag was returned to the community by former civil servant Phil Bowes, who had recently dug it from a log in his basement where it had stood for 30 years.
Steen has tried over the years to track down the painting. He wrote letters to the territorial government and posted questions on Facebook, but to no avail. Most recently, his daughter, Doris Butt, contacted the media.
“It’s very discouraging when you put in so much effort to work on a piece like this, only to make it disappear,” she said.
As her father got older, his desire to find the missing painting grew, Butt said.
“He would like to see this resolved before it’s his time to go.”
An unconventional portrait
Steen’s only record of the painting — which he said took the better part of a year — is a slide taken before it was completed.
But even that shows that this was not a conventional political portrait.
The basis was a collage of newspaper clippings, awash in blue.
Above it, Steen said, were 13 circles, each with the head of a member of the board of the Northwest Territories, as well as then-NWT Commissioner Stuart Hodgson.
Asked about the painting’s design, Steen said with a chuckle, “Perhaps my Catholic upbringing was to place a halo around each painting. [face]†
For example, saints were depicted in pictures he saw at the residential school in Aklavik, where he learned to paint.
Steen also has no artwork from his school days.
“The Catholic Church boarding school took all our artwork with them when they closed the schools,” he said, “so I don’t know where the hell it ended up.”
No record in the museum
Sarah Carr-Locke, director of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center in Yellowknife, said there is no evidence of Steen’s painting in the museum’s collection.
“We have some objects that students made at a residential school because the Gray Nuns or others gave them to us,” Carr-Locke said, but they don’t necessarily know which student made which piece.
The institution, she said, has a code of ethics that prohibits acquiring work without the consent of the person who created or donated it.
But in 1970, “who knows how these things were managed,” she said.
The museum had not yet been established and the NWT government was still in its infancy.
Centennial ‘just huge’
Centenary celebrations lasted an entire year in the NWT, which then included Nunavut.
The anniversary was “just huge,” recalls Eugene Hodgson, the son of then Commissioner Hodgson.
There were sporting events and jamborees, a floating pool on the Mackenzie River, and visits from Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the Royal family†
Eugene, then in high school, couldn’t recall seeing Steen’s painting during the festivities, but suggested the piece might have ended up with an NWT councilor or in Canada’s national archives.
Questions sent to the Library and Archives of Canada went unanswered prior to publication. A spokesman for the National Gallery of Canada said the gallery does not have any of Steen’s works in its permanent collection.
Officials from the NWT Legislative Assembly also question whether the painting made its way to Ottawa.
A spokesperson says he searched last week and found no trace of Steen’s painting.
“We all believe it wouldn’t be surprising if it was somewhere in Ottawa or in a private collection,” they said.
$1K offer declined
Searches by NWT government officials in the late 1980s yielded no clues as to the painting’s whereabouts.
“Unfortunately, I have also been unsuccessful and exhausted all clues,” Tony Whitford, then executive assistant to the NWT commissioner, wrote to Steen in 1988.
“To complicate matters further, most if not all people at the time left the NWT government with all the information they had.”
The letter suggested paying Steen $1,000 — an offer Steen declined, in his own words.
“I thought it was worth more than that,” he said.
Now living on Denman Island in BC, Steen said he doesn’t necessarily want the artwork back. He would appreciate a photo of it, however, and be paid.
“I was thinking close to $40,000 because it’s no longer just a painting, it’s a historical document,” he said.
Steen said he would use the money to start a scholarship for aspiring artists who want to attend art school.