Artist Spotlight – Tia Cavanagh

Encouraging dialogue through art, humour and respect

This is the philosophy at the heart of the creative canon of Tia Cavanagh, a local visual artist who draws inspiration from her Sagamok First Nation heritage while at the same time insisting her culture does not define her art.

Originally from the northern shores of Lake Huron, and having achieved her BFA at OCAD University, she now studies at Trent University in Peterborough ON, working on her MA in Canadian and Indigenous Studies.

In a world rife with division, Cavanagh uses her art to educate, choosing compassion over judgement.

“How do I convey the story visually? Nothing is universal – each person will see something different. I like to leave space so people can find their own story. And I like to keep some things for myself, for my own meaning of the piece,” Cavanagh explains as she talks about her process. She goes on to say, “New meaning is often derived from the process of telling the story and you have to be prepared for that. You have to trust the process, believe in the story and trust in yourself.”

A multi-disciplinary artist who uses materials such as paint, wood, fabrics, sculpture, and projection, Cavanagh talks about that process: “I am a big planner. I put a lot of thought into deciding how different compositions and materials can best tell the story. Art is more than two-dimensional, and the message is tied to the medium and to the experience.”

Her 2019 exhibit at Artspace included one of her most engaging installations. “In Honour of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” features painted milk cartons bearing a head-and-shoulders silhouette, arranged in a circle with a small cedar bough in the center.  “When you are dealing with a tough subject you have to respect someone who may be connected with the story. I avoided using recognizable faces for that reason. But it’s something which compels people to stop and look at it.”

Recently, Peterborough’s Downtown Vibrancy Project opened the Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong (The Place Where the Canoe Heart Beats) pocket park and art installations. Cavanagh talks about her contribution to the project: “The intent was to celebrate the canoe, and Peterborough’s history with it. I was commissioned to paint a canoe… I wanted to honour the original people of the canoe, and their tradition of honouring and protecting the water and its medicine.”

Cavanagh sums up her artistic goals by saying, “I love community-engaged work, and I hope it gets people talking, but I also want to make people laugh. My art should elicit many emotions.” Indeed, it does; and while her art may be inspired by her culture it transcends it, inviting the viewer to explore universal themes of respect, hope and love.

To see more of Tia Cavanagh’s work, visit her website: