Jackie Bugera has been in the art business since she was 10 years old. “When I was young, I would ride my bike to the gallery and sweep the streets and clean the windows,” she recalls.
She quickly graduated from window washer, eventually helping with displays and the retail aspect of the gallery, until her mother Agnes eventually stepped down—and Jackie officially became the owner.
Bearclaw Gallery first opened in 1975 and is now a major player in the Indigenous art space. What visitors might not know is that the gallery wasn’t always Indigenous-focused. In fact, when they opened their original Norwood location, Bearclaw had a primary focus on Alberta crafts, jewelry, and beading. “At that time, Indigenous art was considered craft, not art,” Jackie says. “There weren’t a lot of galleries that were carrying Indigenous art as artwork. I think my mother really saw that this was artwork, the same as any other work.”
However, even though they weren’t focused specifically on Indigenous art, they’ve always carried works by Indigenous creators. “We had a large Aboriginal community where we were,” says Jackie, noting their access to many emerging artists. “People would come in with moccasins, crafts, and artwork.” And Bearclaw would feature them.
This love for Indigenous art and artists runs through every aspect of Bearclaw. With almost 50 years in the business, both Jackie and her mother built strong connections with countless individuals in the artistic community. “We’ve always viewed our relationship as symbiotic. There’s a mutual respect for what we both do,” she says. Works by Linus Woods, Jane Ash Poitras, Aaron Paquette, and countless other iconic Indigenous artists are exhibited in Bearclaw’s sunlit gallery space on 124th Street.
As Jackie speaks about some of her favourite pieces that are currently on display, there’s no doubting she loves the artists she represents. “There’s so much I love,” she laughs. “My home is like a mini Bearclaw. I have pieces by every one of these artists.”
And there’s no clearer example of this shared love than Jackie’s famous “Hall of Zsu Zsi.” Profiled by CBC News in 2016, the “Hall of Zsu Zsi” was, at the time, a collection of over 60 paintings dedicated to… Jackie’s bulldog. The trend was started by artist and current Edmonton City Councillor Aaron Paquette, and other artists like Jane Ash Poitras and Linus Woods quickly followed suit and began to gift Jackie works of art depicting her beloved Zsu Zsi in their signature style. It’s been 7 years and Jackie’s collection is up to almost 120 canine creations!
As time has passed, Jackie has had a front-row seat to the changing landscape of the art world. Not only has Bearclaw evolved from a focus on craft and gifts to a bonafide contemporary art gallery, the gallery has also seen new life experiences brought to life by younger artists. “As younger artists come into the forefront, their life experience is very different to artists from 40 years ago,” she says. Jackie has seen these new artists forge their own path, while still paying homage to art that has hung on Bearclaw’s walls since the beginning.
And, although they may be new, these experiences and resulting works have a timeless impact. “People learn. They learn about culture, they learn about an artist’s experience, they learn about hardship and difficulty, they learn about joy and celebration,” says Jackie. “There’s so much that all of these paintings convey to the world.”
And there’s no place Jackie would rather witness this shift than in Edmonton. “There is such an amazing and rich community of art supporters in Edmonton,” she says, remarking that art collectors in Edmonton are less concerned with value and name recognition than other cities. “There is this wonderful sense of appreciation of the work itself. Not the value of it, not the name to it, but the actual work and how it hits somebody when they view it. That’s a great quality to this city.”
Near the end of our interview, Jackie emphasizes that, although Bearclaw Gallery is a retail space, people are welcome to come in and browse free of pressure or preconceived notions. “I want to let people know that art is accessible. We are a retail space but we are also an opportunity to experience beauty, to experience emotion, to experience art in a way that is easy. Everybody is welcome.”