Local sculptor turns beadwork into artistic triumph

Nico Williams and his team working in his Tiohtià:ke| Montreal Studio on Monument to the Brave, a 2021 sculpture commissioned for the SickKids Foundation that evokes the blue waters of the St. Clair River. Photo: Jimmy Hamelin

Tara Jeffrey

Nico Williams was the only Indigenous kid in his class at Corunna’s Sir John Moore school when he was introduced to beadwork.

“A substitute teacher had come in and brought purple beads and looms and taught us how to do loomwork,” said the native of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, whose sculptural beadwork has earned him one of Canada’s most prestigious art awards.

“I just remember really falling in love with it and doing it, and kids were going out to recess and I was just sitting there beading this little bracelet.”

Now 31 and living in Montreal, Williams was thrilled to learn last month he’d been named to the Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Fellowship in Contemporary Art.

Nico Williams

The $60,000 award is one of Canada’s most generous fellowships for emerging artists.

“When I got the news, I was just like, ‘Wow,’” said Williams, fresh off passing his thesis to officially become a master of fine arts and sculpture at Concordia University.

“It was exciting because people are finally taking my practice seriously.”

Growing up on the St. Clair River had a huge impact on the half-Ojibwe, half-Irish-Canadian artist, whose grandfather ran the old Pilot House Museum in Froomfield, near the reserve.

“During my critique they’re like, ‘All the work you’re making is about water,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I grew up by the water.’

“I miss that river so much.”

His first public sculpture, Monument to the Brave, was commissioned by the SickKids Foundation last year and is now on display, featuring 250,000 multi-coloured beads, plus thousands more donated by the hospital’s Bravery Beads Program.

“When you look at the SickKids’ sculpture, it’s like vibrational water patterns… you can see it all through my work, that bright blue. You can understand where that inspiration is coming from — the blue water.

“Right now I’m doing florals inspired by the powwow circuit that would come through Aamjiwnaang every summer.”

Williams took every art class he could while attending SCITS, before moving to London with his aunt to attend the Bealart program, then onto the Ontario College of Art & Design University (OCAD).

“Eventually when I moved to Montreal, I fell in love with beadwork again, and really started to play with stuff around here.”

His intricate beadwork has been shown Internationally and across Canada, taken him from Europe to New York City, and connected him with research teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he’s hosted talks and workshops.

He’s currently working on his first outdoor public art installation in Quebec City.

“To meet these people and to travel around with beadwork — it’s kind of incredible,” said Williams, whose first official art exhibition was in Grade 9 at the Bayside Mall. He hopes youth in his hometown with a knack for art will stick with it, like he did.

“When you say you’re going to be an artist, you don’t really get support… so if I could leave a note, it would be to encourage parents to support their artist child,” he said.

“You never know what’s going to happen. I have just consistently gone forward with this. I kept on my path of my dream and just had this feeling inside that this was going to work.”