Eight years ago, Iyha Arts escaped an abusive relationship and ended up in a women’s shelter in Ontario – three provinces away from her home and family in Calgary.
“I couldn’t even begin to talk about this experience,” said Arts, who had also changed her name after fleeing for her life.
The physical wounds she suffered were extensive but small in comparison to the psychological damage the abuse and upheaval caused.
“How do you express being uprooted from family, friends, community?”
Arts couldn’t, but she found through creating art — drawings at first and then clay sculptures — that she could express what she was feeling.
Every time she would begin to work on a new piece, the one thing she had salvaged in her escape — a picture of her paternal grandmother and great grandmother — was always there, within sight to provide inspiration.
“I would light a candle of gratitude for their gift of strength and courage.”
Born to Jamaican parents, Arts grew up in Edmonton but knew little of her ancestral culture.
The comfort and strength she felt every time she looked at her grandmothers’ pictures, every time she went to create a piece of art, made her wonder where this inner artist had come from.
“During this journey, I ended up wanting to know more about my roots, deeper roots, African roots, Cuban roots, Jamaican roots.”
Arts started down another path to find out from where here ancestors hailed.
“It was like going back to find and discover different elements of me that I inherited,” she said.
All the while she continued to create and heal. Arts also moved on from drawings and figurines to crafting masks from clay which were both emotionally and culturally symbolic of her journey.
“There is a saying….a west African saying and it boils down to saying, ‘It’s OK to go back to find what you’ve lost,’ explained Arts. “So for me, with the birth of these masks, it was like going back, like a soul retrieval.
“I’m still journeying but I think a good deal of my healing has been done.”
Arts’ works have been exhibited at the Calgary Public Library and she is part of a documentary that is in the works about new and emerging female artists over the age of 50. You can see and learn more about the masks she’s created on her Instagram page.