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Elise Boulanger (Studio Art, ‘21) creates space for Indigenous students far from home.

Walking the grounds of Fort Lewis College for the first time, Elise Boulanger (Studio Art, ‘21) was captivated by the sunshine, crisp air, and snow-capped mountains of Southwest Colorado. This was a fresh experience for Boulanger, a member of the Osage Nation, who grew up surrounded by the expansive lakes and verdant hills of Arkansas' Ozark Plateaus.

Elise stands and smiles in front of pottery in the C S W S gallery.

“I was visiting my brother James Lilburn (English, ‘16) in 2016,” Boulanger said. “We were walking around campus with our father, and I remember being in awe of each sidewalk and building. The scenery was exquisite.”

In 2017, Boulanger moved to Durango and initially planned to study Psychology or Sociology. A practicing ceramicist, she began to take Studio Art classes that piqued her interest. Soon after, she found her calling as a Studio Art major.

“In the Studio Art program, I had to branch out to drawing, painting, gallery work, design, etc.,” Boulanger said. “I'm glad I did because these skills have been beneficial for my career.”

Boulanger also discovered the meticulous craft of curatorial work during an internship at the Center of Southwest Studies and, with it, a particular concern for Indigenous identities and social justice issues. During her senior year, she organized and curated two student-led exhibitions: Student Skateboard Deck Art, inspired by PIVOT: Skateboard Deck Art, and Throughline: Student Works Inspired by the Center's Collections.

Red, yellow, and black textiles sewn together, hang from the ceiling in the C S W S gallery.

Her Throughline exhibit doubled as her presentation at the 2021 Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities Symposium, where she won the “Best Oral Presentation Award.” Impressed by Boulanger’s work, President Tom Stritikus and former Associate Vice President of Diversity Affairs Lee Bitsóí invited her to continue FLC’s reconciliation work by creating an exhibition of student perspectives on intergenerational trauma related to federal Indian boarding schools. To support this vital work, a new curatorial fellow position was created at the Center of Southwest Studies.

Today, in her second year as a curatorial fellow, Boulanger conducts outreach to the FLC community and curates exhibits that touch on the themes of resilience, identity, and Indigeneity. By doing so, she helps FLC progress its actions toward reconciliation.

“I was very honored,” Boulanger said. “I was chosen to lead a conversation as an Osage woman about the intergenerational trauma affecting many of our friends and family members.”

Boulanger’s research and conversations with students inspired her to develop As Seeds, We Grow: Student Reflections on Resilience, a powerful collection of student and alumni works. As Seeds, We Grow opened on April 27, 2022—a watershed moment for FLC. It provided Indigenous students and alumni with an outlet to be the authors of their own stories and reflect on trauma from a position of strength, which runs counter to the deficit-framing commonly forced on Indigenous peoples. As Seeds, We Grow will be showcased in the Center of Southwest Studies for the remainder of the academic year. So far, nearly 2,000 people have visited the exhibit, including U.S. Senator Michael Bennett on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The exhibit was no small feat: Boulanger created a familiar space for Indigenous peoples far from their homes through community-building work. Boulanger, however, continued tirelessly in co-developing other exhibit installations like The Stories We Wear, a project that honors the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives of the FLC community. This work, she noted, exceeded the dreams that she brought with her as a first-year student.

“I was very honored. I was chosen to lead a conversation as an Osage woman about the intergenerational trauma affecting many of our friends and family members.”

She recalled the grit that pushed her through her first year at FLC to the critical work she does now.

“Back then, my family warned me I'd end up a starving artist,” Boulanger said. “But I followed my passion, and it's paying off. Since I graduated, I have been able to stay at FLC and do the work I care about most.”

Boulanger’s work is made possible thanks to Eric and Alice Foultz, the Ballantine Family Fund, the Women and Girls of Color Fund of the Women's Foundation of Colorado, and the Mellon Foundation.

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