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The Grandmother of Canadian Native Art: Daphne Odjig

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Back at the end of May, I promised to cover 13 artists from 13 different countries in the 13 "Feel Art Again" posts for the month of June. Due to personal issues, I've gotten a little behind schedule, but I'll be working this week to fulfill my promise.

At the request of reader Wanda, today's post features the Canadian First Nations artist Daphne Odjig. The "grandmother of Canadian native art" will celebrate her 100th birthday on September 11, 2009.

1. "Born with a paintbrush in her hand," Daphne Odjig's creative streak was nurtured by her artistic family, especially her grandfather. Odjig referred to her grandfather, a tombstone carver and painter, as her "first mentor." Her mother embroidered, and her father drew; as Odjig said, "Art was always a part of our lives."

2. Some of Odjig's work explores erotic themes, which was unusual for First Nations art. In 1974, she illustrated Herbert T. Schwartz's collection of traditional First Nations erotica, Tales from the Smokehouse. In 1977, when her paintings were on display in a Winnipeg gallery, "the vice squad objected to the size of the genitals in some of the illustrations."

3. Of Odawa and Potawatomi (as well as English) heritage, Odjig is a symbol of First Nations art. Her breakthrough came from her drawings of the Cree people from northern Manitoba, and she was the driving force behind Professional Native Indian Arts, Inc., also known as the "Indian Group of Seven." In 1978, Odjig was the first woman to be presented with an Eagle Feather on behalf of the Wikwemikong Reserve. The honor, previously presented to men for their prowess in hunt or war, was presented to Odjig for her artistic accomplishments.

4. Pablo Picasso once referred to Odjig as a "remarkable artist." In 1986, Odjig was honored as one of only 4 artists selected by the curators of the Picasso Museum in Antibes, France, to paint a memorial to Picasso.

5. After suffering prejudice as a child, Odjig grew up to become a respected and honored national figure in Canada "“ "one of Canada's most important cultural leaders." She has been awarded a Native Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Governor General's Award, the Order of Canada, and 5 honorary doctorates. Odjig was also elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Art in 1989.

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Larger versions of "The Stream, Columbia Valley" (top left), "In Tune With The Infinite" (top right), and "The Indian in Transition" (above) are available.

Fans should check out the collection of Odjig's artwork at Hambleton Galleries; the Odjig works for sale at Hampton Gallery and Bearclaw Gallery; and this video on the 2008 Odjig exhibition at the McMichael.

"Feel Art Again" appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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