VDB Asks... TJ Cuthand

VDB Asks... TJ Cuthand


TJ Cuthand was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1978, and grew up in Saskatoon. Since 1995 he has been making short experimental narrative videos and films about sexuality, madness, Queer identity and love, and Indigeneity, which have screened in festivals internationally, including the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, Mix Brasil Festival of Sexual Diversity in Sao Paolo, ImagineNATIVE in Toronto, Frameline in San Francisco, Outfest in Los Angeles, and Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. His work has also exhibited at galleries including the Mendel in Saskatoon, The National Gallery in Ottawa, and The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

He is a trans man who uses He/Him pronouns. He is of Plains Cree and Scots descent, a member of Little Pine First Nation, and currently resides in Toronto, Canada.

1. Can you tell us something about your background?

I was raised by artists, Ruth Cuthand and Edward Poitras. To be honest though, my mom did most of the care for myself and my sister as we grew up, as a single mom. I’m from the Little Pine First Nation, I didn’t live there though but that’s where my family is buried and where I’m going to be laid to rest in the hopefully distant future. I am nêhiyaw, my Grandpa didn’t teach my mom our language, so I’ve been trying to learn it. I grew up in Saskatoon Saskatchewan. I was an urban kid living in the more white side of the city, so I was often the only Indigenous kid in my classes, but outside of school we were very connected to our families and Indigenous community. I was an activist from a young age with a really clear view of how anti-Indigenous racism operates in Canada, and eventually when I came out I saw how being a Lesbian and Butch complicates race.

2. What inspired you to become an artist?  To use video?

I think growing up around art I knew it was something I was going to do, I just didn’t know how. I was always into watching the Oscars which is hilarious cause it’s so mainstream compared to the work I do, but it was a child’s aspiration I guess. And then when I finally started making videos I realized I was good at telling a story, and that I loved working out the puzzle of making a film or video.

3. Did you have formal art training/schooling?

Yes, I went to Emily Carr University for my undergrad where I did the film program. It was a great intro to experimental film and video art. I really liked the chaotic creative energy being in a building with a bunch of stressed art students. I remember one of the film editing rooms had an emergency cigarette taped to the wall. My ex girlfriend used to get extra editing slots by signing in as Maya Deren. I did my Masters of Media Production at X University which is a way more Industry school than Emily Carr. I’m pretty happy I was able to balance both Industry and Experimental film in my education.

4. How do you balance life and art?  Are you able to make a living through creating art?

I am able to make a living on my art. I think it’s a combo though, like I make films and videos and do performances, but I also do artist talks and workshops, I am a freelance film programmer, I write reviews and do interviews with other artists. Also some of the more mainstream Industry gigs I get paid decently at times. I’m actually at a point where I am thinking of hiring an assistant to manage all my admin tasks. Doing admin is my least favorite Artist job, but it’s how you get paid. I feel like my whole life is art though, I don’t know if I can separate the two at this point.

5. What influences or motivates you in the world?

I love pop culture. I love fairy tales and fables. I love kink. I think a lot about Indigenous storytelling and grapple with questions about representing trauma versus representing joy. I think making work which sparks 2 Spirit/Indigiqueer Joy is really important to me. I like making people feel turned on and happy and thoughtful. I think a lot about cultivating 2 Spirit/Indigiqueer sexual expression among my community, either by making sexy videos or helping other people make sexy videos. I am also motivated by the healing impacts of humour.

6. What artists or movements are you following right now?

I really love music, I’ve been listening to a lot of Marina these days while I heal a broken heart. I also love Tanya Tagaq. I am also really keenly interested in a lot of 90’s nostalgia that is coming up in media these days, I think because I was a teen in the 90’s. Some recent filmmakers whose work has excited me have been Danis Goulet and Tracey Deer with their features. I’m also really enamoured of my friend Vika Kirchenbauer’s work. There are also some young up and coming Indigiqueer artists whose work I love like Kablusiak, Fallon Simard, Arielle Twist.

7. What was the last exhibition you saw?

I think the last exhibit I saw was Warhol at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I love those big retrospective shows that have to present a variety of mediums in one show. I’m also always curious about how performance and video is represented in Galleries.

8. What has been the best screening experience of your work?

I think the first time I ever showed a video was the best. It was my video about looking for other teen Lesbians like myself, and the Queer fest audience really connected with it. I think I’ve been chasing that high ever since, seeing how an audience connects with a work.

9. What are you working on right now?

Too much! I am working on a short doc about my journey trying and failing to make a baby. I think talking about failure is a hard thing for me, especially such a sensitive topic to experience failure in. I’m also working on a feature about an Indigenous Lesbian Super Hero, I’ve not delved into the super hero genre much before so it’s pretty exciting. It’s also horror, so a bit of cross genre there. I’m also trying to catch up on some other projects which have been on my plate too long. This spring I will be shooting a web series with Justin Ducharme, we just finalized casting and it’s going to be so honestly amazing. I’ve only started working with actors in the last few years and I really love it. I am also working on a period piece about Native Lesbians in the 70s, using the aesthetics of 70’s film and 70’s video art. I’ve been looking through these Queer archives online and finding fascinating stuff.

10. How do you start a piece?  How do you know when a piece is finished?

I usually start with a monologue. Most of my films are monologues with images. When I’ve worked with producers I love how attentive they are to detail and to making it perfect. Like the point where they know there’s a bad five seconds in a sound mix that needs to be fixed. As a director I am not a perfectionist though. As long as I don’t feel embarrassed by it and it works, I figure it’s done.

11. What are you currently reading? Watching?

I’ve been trying to watch Yellowjackets but it’s so gory. I’ve also been watching music videos for work reasons. I am reading my way through Kushiel’s Legacy because an old crush told me about them, so many pages though! I made it through the first seven hundred pages but now there’s still two more books to read. I also have a pile of books friends have written that I need to read.

12. Room for additional thoughts:

The pandemic has made me miss community spaces. I get hints of it when cases are low, but overall I’m not going to openings and screenings and seeing my friends there. Yet somehow I have still met new amazing people during these years which has been great. I’m glad we are somehow socially persevering in these times.