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How the Royal Ontario Museum Used Actual Stardust to Promote Kent Monkman’s Exhibit


Broken Heart Love Affair’s Craig McIntosh, the Royal Ontario Museum’s Lori Davison and Circle Productions director Shaunoh Wilson discuss creating a campaign worthy of promoting the groundbreaking art of Kent Monkman, writes LBB’s Josh Neufeldt

How the Royal Ontario Museum Used Actual Stardust to Promote Kent Monkman’s Exhibit

Did you know that humans are made of stardust? In 2017, a scientific study provided definitive proof that the human body contains 97% of the elements found in the galaxy, meaning that we are, in fact, children of the stars. 

This fact was not unknown to legendary Canadian and internationally acclaimed Cree artist Kent Monkman, who made it a central theme in his ‘Kent Monkman: Being Legendary’ exhibition. Hosted by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) until March 19th, ‘Being Legendary’ features 35 paintings, as well as sculptures and etchings, the majority of which have been created specifically for this show.Telling the story of Turtle Island from the beginning of time to the present day, the exhibition depicts the world through the eyes of Monkman’s gender-fluid alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Juxtaposed with fossils, a meteorite and intricately beaded moccasins selected carefully by the artist from the museum, this body of work is designed to be an emotionally complex response to the collections housed in ROM - asking important questions about how museums in general collect, curate and present in the 21st century. 

Given the magnitude of this ‘Being Legendary’, making a campaign for it would have proved a courageous undertaking. Enter Broken Heart Love Affair (BHLA). Reflecting the exhibition’s stardust theme, BHLA partnered with Circle Productions director Shaunoh Wilson to create ‘We Are Made of Stardust’, an evocative campaign that shows how the power of Indigenous peoples lives on through stories, art, and song. Developed with extensive input from Indigenous talent - both in front and behind the camera - ‘We Are Made of Stardust’ took its name quite literally, with the campaign posters and mural being made from paint composed of a crushed meteorite, or in other words, actual stardust. 

LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with BHLA CCO Craig McIntosh, the ROM’s chief marketing & communications officer Lori Davison, and Shaunoh to learn more about how this out-of-this world campaign came to life. 

LBB> ‘We Are Made of Stardust’ is an extraordinary campaign, featuring posters, a mural with paint made from actual stardust, and a 90-second spot. What was the brief? 

Craig> We were tasked with creating intrigue and excitement surrounding the exhibit. The ROM client was incredible in that they gave us a ton of freedom.

Lori> The brief to BHLA was to create a campaign that was clearly conceived from an Indigenous perspective, so we had Indigenous director Shaunoh Wilson and other contributors bring that lens to the storytelling. The ultimate objective was for a creative approach that would convey the emotional centre of the show – which is at times deadly serious, but also a bit mystical and mischievous. Not an easy brief!

Shaunoh> It was incredibly collaborative and delicate, as we all knew that we needed to walk carefully in the footsteps of Kent’s powerful exhibition. It was so, so important to me that we told this story with honesty - reminding the audience that this is a true story, both culturally and physically. This is why we chose to treat the meteor as a living character - painting with practical light and to set a tangible tone for the film. The trust from the agency, ROM (and Kent) was moving, and really allowed us to take some chances in creating this special piece of work. 

LBB> Tell us about how Kent Monkman’s exhibition came to the ROM! What was the discussion like?

Lori> Kent Monkman and Josh Basseches, ROM’s director and CEO, first connected five years ago about the idea of a collaboration with the museum. Since then, what started as a smaller intervention in the museum became a fully-fledged exhibition with a new body of work in response to the museum’s belongings and history. Kent was essentially given carte blanche, and worked closely with our curators to delve into the collection to see what would inspire him. 

LBB> Building on this - Monkman’s exhibition features 35 paintings plus sculptures, and etchings, the majority of which were created specifically for this show. Can you tell us more about how these were made?

Lori> Because of the scale of this exhibition, the process was quite involved - with several smaller studies of each painting created before the final large-scale versions that you see in the exhibition. Monkman also worked with several different collaborators from his team of painters (who worked for over three years alongside him), as well as several Indigenous knowledge keepers who helped to inform the narrative of the exhibition as a whole. ’Being Legendary’ evolved over several years to become a truly landmark exhibition, and one that we hope will really advance the conversation. 

LBB> Shaunoh played a big role in this project, helping to create the look and feel of the campaign. What was this process like, and what made him the right person for the job?

Craig> Shaunoh is immensely talented, has an incredible eye, and is just brimming with passion. He throws himself completely into every project, irrespective of the content. But, as you can imagine, this one was extremely personal to him. Plus previous to the Kent Monkman project, we had actually been talking with Shaunoh - circling around some other ideas both he and we had for other things. So, when this brief came up, there wasn’t even a millisecond where we considered anyone else.   

In terms of his work, it wasn’t just the look and feel of the film. Shaunoh worked with us from the very beginning - cooking up ideas as a third member of the creative team. It was awesome, because he’s a super creative guy, but he also had some genius production solutions for our budget. Even though he lives in the Yukon, it was so easy to hop on Zoom calls with him to brainstorm, and we’d meet up in person when he was in town.

LBB> The press release mentioned that you used Monkman’s large-scale and highly detailed work as the basis for your creative approach. How did the campaign evolve?

Craig> Seeing Kent Monkman’s work, in person, is a jaw-dropping experience. It’s massive in scale, filled with brilliant and vivid colours, and the subject matter forces you to confront the accepted colonial historical narratives. It’s monumentally impactful. His alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (and central figure in most of his paintings) arrived on Turtle Island via comet. So, we took cues from both the show’s comet narrative, as well as the boldness of Kent’s cosmic, supernatural colours to arrive at the idea and the art direction.  

Shaunoh> Craig, Jaimes Zentil (CCO) and I spent a long while massaging the concept and then script - listening and then relistening to the teachings and values that Kent shared. Kent showed that he really wanted to create an exhibition that kids could witness, so we took that cue and worked to tell this story through a child’s eyes.

LBB> Did you get to work with Kent Monkman during this process? If so, please tell us about that!

Craig> Yes! We were able to share a range of initial ideas with Kent and his team, including his writing partner Giséle, and they were instrumental in selecting and shaping the final output. The absolute best part of the project was a studio visit, where Kent himself took us on a personal guided tour through the work, which was in its final stages of finish. We got to hear Kent’s ideas and intentions behind his work, in his own words. A moment we’ll never forget!

LBB> The assets for this campaign are literally made from the dust of a crushed meteorite! How did this idea come to pass, and how did it fit into the development of the campaign?

Craig> We were extremely inspired by the writing that accompanied Kent’s show. One phrase in particular stood out to us: ‘We are made of stardust’. It spoke to the Cree people’s origin story, belief in the undying spirit and particles we’re made of, and the conscientious effort for this show to attract and appeal to all Canadians. So we said to ourselves, ‘why not make the posters out of stardust as well?’. We purchased a real meteor, pulverised it (using the museum’s rock crusher), and enlisted a paint maker used to creating paint from naturally sourced pigment to create the special paint made from the crushed meteor dust.

LBB> Another key aspect of the campaign was that it was developed with extensive input from Indigenous talent - both in front and behind the camera. Who did you work with?

Craig> Beyond consulting with Kent and his team, we worked with Anong Migwan Beams, a painter and paint maker from M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island to create the special stardust paint. Kent knew her and her family, and our director Shaunoh had recently worked with Anong on a project. The little girl that starred in the film, Tayanna Solway, is Blackfoot, hailing from Sisf Siksika Nation in southern Alberta. The music was created by world-renowned Cree cellist Cris Derksen and Inuk throat singer Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory. And then of course, Shaunoh is Haudenosaunee.

LBB> What was the production process like? And how long did it take to shoot?

Shaunoh> The production was intimate and collaborative, and I think you feel that in the final film. What I think I am most in awe of was our cast’s ability to embrace this experience on screen. Tayanna was always our first and only choice. She’s a remarkable actor who I had worked with the summer before, and when we landed on this script, I knew she was the one to play the role. That said, in order for it all to work, Tayanna needed to really live this event, and she did such an amazing job. On set she was so present and aware of the story - never distracted by drones with lights or any of the dust (and there was a lot of dust). 

In terms of shooting time, all told, it was about a week-long shoot. It could have been shorter, but we really wanted to capture the journey of the meteor practically, so we decided to tack on a few more days and went on a road trip across two provinces while shooting the light path. 

LBB> When it came to aesthetics and the look and feel, what were your main aims and ambitions, and how did you achieve them through lighting and colour?

Shaunoh> Miss Chief (the main character in Kent’s show) is all about pink, so we knew we had to bathe the set in that space. That said, I thought it was important to not lean too far into the sci-fi genre, so we were constantly keeping ourselves in check and not going too ‘X-Files’. This is where I have to give our production design team so much credit - they created a meteor and stardust that was so believable, and gave our cast the ability to chase that experience. 

In terms of capturing this, we used a drone with a light mounted to it to create the light of the meteor. Alter Ego then got a hold of it and added the tail and some pulse, and they did such a delicate job. I love where it landed! 

LBB> Cris and Laakkuluk’s music is an important aspect of the spot. Tell us more about how it was developed! 

Craig> The music completely blew us away! We honestly love it so friggin’ much. Shaunoh had recently worked with Cris, so he reached out to her to ask if she’d be interested. She created an original composition for the film, and even completely rethought the back end one late night when she wasn’t feeling it was quite right - adding her partner (Laakkuluk’s) voice to the second half. We thought she had nailed the first version, but the next morning when we heard the revision, we were beyond awestruck. It still gives us chills (in a good way) listening to it.

LBB> Do you have any memorable lessons learned from the making of ‘We Are Made of Stardust’?

Craig> The most memorable lesson was to listen, give space, and recognise that we weren’t the most important voice in the room. Beyond Kent and his team, there were so many other incredible Indigenous voices and talents involved in this project, and it would have been ridiculous for us to not step back and follow their lead. It also made the work so much better.

LBB> Are there any elements of the project you’re particularly proud of? And why? 

Shaunoh> The collaboration. Everyone involved recognised how important this work of Kent’s is and so they all offered up a piece of themselves. You feel it in the vibration of the film, and I hope viewers are motivated to go and see this important exhibition at the ROM. ‘Being Legendary’ is something that I believe all Canadians should witness. 

LBB> What challenges have you faced during this project? How did you overcome them?

Craig> The biggest challenge was that we had to be careful our ideas didn’t intrude on Kent’s work, and that it wasn’t misconstrued as art created by him, rather than an ad campaign coming from the ROM. Some of our other ideas which were more experiential could easily have misconstrued, so we abandoned those.

Lori> Capturing the spirit of Kent Monkman’s art without attempting it was certainly a challenge. One of the ways the team achieved this was by using the written narrative of the show as the springboard. I think the beautiful words, as well as the music and the pace of the edit also work really well at conveying the same emotion you get from looking at one of Kent’s paintings.

Shaunoh> I can’t say that there really were any challenges. As I said, we were surrounded by an unbelievable energy and focus, and it was an incredible experience to witness the power of that.  

LBB> Kent’s body of work is designed to ask important questions about how collections in museums are curated and presented in the 21st century. Have those questions challenged the way you curate the ROM? 

Lori> So much of what ’Being Legendary’ is addressing is incredible timely, touching on several of the most urgent conversations in the news today. Not only are the artworks in the exhibition striking, but they also ask us to reconsider what sorts of stories are traditionally told in museums. ’Being Legendary’ is already impacting the way we think about the collections at the ROM, and I’m sure it will continue to shape the evolution of the museum in the years to come.

LBB> What does it mean to you to have Kent Monkman’s work at your museum?

Lori> It’s such a joy to be able to showcase the incredible homegrown talent of Kent Monkman, as he is one of the most well-known artists working today. We feel it’s more important than ever before to be giving a platform to artists like Kent - people who are so visionary and who are pointing a way forward for us as an institution. We are so thrilled to be able to show work from diverse artists who really embody this spirit and inspire future generations.

LBB> How does this campaign fit into the ROM’s branding for the coming future?

Lori> This campaign is the latest installation of creative within the ‘ROM Immortal’ platform - which positions the ROM as a hub of human storytelling. As with the ‘ROM Immortal’ launch film, the creative culminates in a quick sequence of art and artefacts, and is, partially, a celebration of museum objects that unlock stories of our existence. That is the core idea of the brand that we intend to carry forward.

LBB> What has the initial response been like? 

Craig> The best response was that Kent and his team were really happy with it. That was what mattered most to us.

Lori> The response has been really positive, with the exhibition seeing up to 5000 people go through every week.

LBB> Is there anything you’d like to add?

Craig> First and foremost, the three of us (Shaunoh included) are big fans of Kent’s work, so it was an incredible honour to not only work on the project, but get to chat and meet with him. But more importantly, every Canadian should see this exhibit. The opportunity to help boost attendance so more people could see Kent’s work and hear Miss Chief’s words inspired us to bring our A-game.

Shaunoh> Go and see this event. It is so, so important.  


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Broken Heart Love Affair, Thu, 10 Nov 2022 16:50:08 GMT