She stares straight ahead with complex eyes, her face and hair and clothes a mixture of textures and colors that compel the viewer to look deeper.
Yet, this year's first place painting in Peace Hills Trust's 19th annual Native art show award ceremony is not so much about the woman's portrait that dominates the canvas as the small stick-man dancers that swirl around her head.
"The story is not the lady herself," said Keith Nolan, a Missanabie Cree raised in Ontario but living in Edmonton for the past 16 years. "It's the dancers. It's what she's thinking."
More than 300 pieces of art adorned the perimeter of the award ceremony room at Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre on Oct. 30. It was these creative pieces, painted by Native artists in every corner of the country, that Nolan's acrylic on canvas, Spirit Dancers, had to outdo to win.
A pipefitter by day, Nolan worked on the painting in 30-minute to two-hour stints in the evenings and on weekends, stretching the creation of the piece over a period of many weeks.
"Every time I worked on it, the image would change or the story would change," said Nolan. "I let it evolve by itself."
When he received word that he had won the $2,000 first prize he didn't believe it. He tried to figure out who of his friends would be playing this kind of joke on him before he eventually phoned Peace Hills Trust to make sure it was true.
Nolan has studied art part time at Edmonton's Grant MacEwan College for the last four years. He is currently studying monochromatics and is hoping to complete an art degree at the University of Alberta in seven years. At that time he would like to paint full time.
He is already receiving lots of commissions and is seeing the price for his work rise.
Nolan's prize painting will hang in the Peace Hills Trust corporate office art gallery as a testament to the win.
Second place in the contest went to Medicine Wheel #1, a large, vibrantly colored acrylic on canvas by Metis painter April Mercredi of Wetaskiwin.
"The Medicine Wheel is a very powerful process of human life and experiences," said Mercredi. At 61 years of age, she has gone through many parts of the circle of life represented on the four-by-four foot canvas.
As did the winner, Mercredi also recently completed a diploma in art. She still goes back to her professors at Red Deer College to get feedback on pieces she is working on.
"When you're by yourself and you're painting, you wonder if you are on track," she said.
Accomplished Edmonton artist Evelyn Carter deserves some credit for Mercredi's success in the competition. She took the painting in and got Mercredi to fill in the necessary forms.
"She believed in me and she believed in my art," said Mercredi. "She's the one who was the driving force behind me."
Mercredi, a retired life skills coach, considers herself an emerging artist and views the second-place $1,500 prize as just another step in the learning, creative process.
Peace Hills Trust, a financial services company owned by the Samson Cree Nation of Hobbema, sponsors the awards ceremony as a way to recognize prominent and up-and-coming Canadian Native artists.