Royal Canadian Academy of Arts
Allen Sapp was born in 1928, in his grandparents’ log cabin on the Red Pheasant Reserve in Saskatchewan. Allen’s mother died when he was quite young, and his grandmother, Nokum, raised him. Their relationship was very close and despite Nokum’s passing, she was a great influence on Allen’s life.
Allen Sapp is Plains Cree, descended from Chief Poundmaker, who is one of the Great Chiefs and is still honoured by his people today. In his early years, Allen’s health was poor. During a serious illness when he was about eight years old, his grandmother’s sister said that unless Allen was given a new Indian name, he would die. Allen received his Cree name, Kiskayetum; translated it means “He perceives it.” It was the first of many spiritual experiences in his life. When he was in his early teens Allen was bedridden with meningitis, which prevented him from attending school. Unable to read or write, Allen spent the hours of solitude sketching and drawing, which suited his shy temperament. A self-taught artist, when Allen first started working in oils his pallet was restricted by his budget to only a few colours. His early paintings were done in white, brown and black.
Allen Sapp later moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan, where he painted at night and walked the streets during the day to find buyers for his work. When he was in his mid-thirties, he met Dr. Allan Gonor, who became a very good friend and patron. Dr. Gonor encouraged Allen to paint what he remembered of life growing up on the reserve. He promised to buy much of Allen’s work and arranged the sale of other paintings so that Allen could make a living as an artist without having to rely on welfare. With Dr. Gonor’s support, Allen never looked back. Allen’s art is a window to life on the reserve as it was when he was growing up in the 1930’s and 40’s. Many of these scenes have disappeared from current reserve life. Allen’s paintings depict the struggle for survival by a proud people in a harsh environment.
In 1969 and 1970, successful exhibitions in Saskatoon and Vancouver launched Allen’s career. Within the next five years, Allen Sapp’s paintings were widely exhibited and acclaimed throughout Canada, and in London, New York and Los Angeles.
Allen Sapp is an inspiration to younger Native painters across Canada. At the “New Beginnings” Native Art Show, held in conjunction with the Native Business Summit in Toronto in June 1986, Allen Sapp was singled out as a Senior Native artist in Canada, “whose contributions to the recent renaissance of Native art and culture will only be measured by history.”
Allen Sapp passed away on December 29, 2015.