The Anishinaabe artist Nico Williams was first approached by the SickKids Foundation in Toronto last September with a challenging, albeit unique proposition: to transform thousands of beads the non-profit had collected into a work of art commemorating the courage of children with difficult health challenges who had gone through its hospital doors. Now, the Monument to the Brave, a stunning portrait of resilience, is complete and ready to be installed in a Toronto SickKids hospital that will open in 2023.
In total, the Monument to the Brave consists of 250,000 multi-coloured beads in addition to 3,000 donated by SickKids’ Bravery Beads Program spearheaded by the Women's Auxiliary Volunteers group, which rewards children with a special bead for every procedure, test or jab of a needle they undergo.
“I had never sewn or beaded anything this large,” Williams told the Art Newspaper. “At first, I really didn’t have any solid plan nor an idea of what to do with all the beads, which came in different sizes, shapes and colours. But after my studio team and I started to organise them, we began to sew them into triangles, and piece by piece the geometric form came to life, which when laid flat, measures over 20 feet in length.”
Williams, who is Anishinaabe from Aamjiwnaang First Nation, is currently completing an MFA at the University of Concordia in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. He managed to find the time to assemble the awe-inspiring work in between his studies and numerous gallery exhibitions, including an exhibition at Montreal’s MAC Museum, a solo show at Never Apart, and work with the progressive Wil Aballe Art Projects space in East Vancouver.
Aballe says what initially drew him to working with Williams was how he is able to respect First Nations craft traditions and imbue them with a refreshingly contemporary take. “Williams’ work seems to have the ability to connect with people,” Aballe says. “His approach to making the work is collaborative. His imagery relates to anyone interested in urban youth, and the new sculpture at SickKids with its playful bravery beads speak to the patients and the staff in a way that is emotionally resonant.”
The final sculpture is accompanied by a poignant video portrait of the artist at work, including numerous testimonies from children and parents who have found strength in the beads and what they represent, “a reminder that at SickKids, we don’t bend to the impossible, we defy it”.