Meryl McMaster As Immense as the Sky

As Immense as the Sky is a photographic series of performative self-portraits set in specific landscapes across Canada where the Ottawa-based artist Meryl McMaster examines the overlapping cultures and histories—public and private, familial and non-familial—of both her Indigenous and European ancestors. Here, McMaster speaks to her position in this lineage and how these diverse lives inform her identity today:

“The way we experience the passing of time shapes our relationship to and understanding of our immediate world. My awareness of time comes from an overlapping of two distinct approaches—one is that of a linear path that extends in both directions from the present, and another one that is recurrent and cyclical. This intersection of world views has been part of my upbringing, a result of being born into a family both Western and Indigenous.

Contemplating time and the countless cycles of life that have recurred around the ancient mistassini (monoliths), sputinas (buttes), wiyacahk (canyons), and ayeakow awacha (dunes) of Turtle Island led to the development of As Immense as the Sky. These thoughts left me in a state of wonderment, but also stirred within me a fearful apprehension of our permanent and collective impact upon our beautiful world.

To confront this fear, I sought wisdom in the places of ancestral life, listening to the truths of relatives, knowledge keepers, friends, and peoples who have traversed this land before me. At the social, cultural, and environmental contact zones of my Indigenous and European ancestors, I set out to study and collect their knowledge and to animate and retell it in a personally transformative process through photography.

Many places I visited hold particular meaning for my direct ancestors as they are sites of significant moments in their lives; I was drawn to the sites of sentient stories across central and southern Saskatchewan and to the shores of early settlement in Ontario and Newfoundland. My aim was to reconnect with those who came before me as a way of introducing myself to the land on which they lived.

I came to see these landscapes as immense time capsules of buried knowledge. As Immense as the Sky is about walking these ancient paths, experiencing the diversity of panoramas, and learning about my ancestors’ wisdom.

The resulting images are a blend and collapse of time into the present. The stories of kayas (long ago) and the foreboding whispers of the future intertwine my body with the land, in the hope that we all maintain a long-term ecological equilibrium with the world around us.”

—Meryl McMaster

Curated by Gaëlle Morel

Organized and presented by the Ryerson Image Centre, in partnership with CONTACT

Meryl McMaster earned her BFA in Photography from the OCAD University (2010). Known for her large-format self-portraits that have a distinct performative quality, she explores questions of self through land, lineage, history, and culture, with specific reference to her mixed nêhiyaw (Plains Cree), British and Dutch ancestry. McMaster’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Urban Shaman Gallery, Winnipeg (2021), Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2019), Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto (2019), Glenbow, Calgary (2019), IAIA MOCNA, Santa Fe (2015), and Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, New York (2015). Her work has appeared in group exhibitions at Australian Centre for Photography, Australia (2019), National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (2018), Ottawa Art Gallery (2018, 2019), the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (2019), amongst others.