A Tlicho man who was acclaimed for his colourful, abstract paintings depicting northern life and Dene culture and folklore has died. 

CBC confirmed that Archie Beaulieu died late Thursday night. He had been battling cancer. He was 65.

His cousin, Maurice Zoe, said Beaulieu's career, fame and financial success were an inspiration to future generations of artists in Behchoko.

"Archie was the first one to break the ground for the Dogrib people," Zoe said. "He was an inspiration to a lot of youth. Archie is the one who broke the ground."

Archie Beaulieu painting

This image, by Dene artist Archie Beaulieu, was part of a children's book about the legend of Yamǫǫ̀zha. (Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)

Nosebleeds and hidden talents

Zoe said he grew up with Beaulieu and went to school with him at Breynat Hall, a residential school in Fort Smith in 1967.

It was there, thanks to a tendency to get nosebleeds, that Beaulieu's talents were uncovered. 

"When Archie was small he used to get a bloody nose all the time," Zoe said. "They [the school] kept him inside when we played sports. He never participated in sports."

A teacher at the school offered the young Beaulieu art supplies to pass the time while he was kept indoors during sports activities.

"They saw Archie's potential to be a good artist," Zoe said.

But Zoe said Beaulieu "got tired of doing art by himself," and was in danger of losing focus.

The two were encouraged to make art together. The school set up a private art room for them, their easels, and their art supplies.

Sent to Banff School of Fine Art

Their teacher was so impressed with their skills he called in Paul Piché O.M.I., the Roman Catholic Bishop of the diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith at the time.

Zoe said Bishop Piché was impressed with their work and wanted to see them excel.

"He said, OK, I'll sponsor these two guys so they can go to the Banff School of Fine Art," Zoe said, referring to what is now known as the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. 

In June 1968 the two cousins travelled to Banff, Alta., where Beaulieu's talent for abstract art was quickly well-established.

"Every weekend we used to have a competition in the school," Zoe said. "We would draw a picture for who was going to win $40 — that was a lot of money in '68. Nobody could beat him, he was winning all the time."

Zoe said he encouraged Beaulieu to focus on his abstract works, although Beaulieu showed talent in landscape, portraiture and still life projects.

"I said, 'Archie stick to this one,' — the rest was history."

Yamoria and the giant wolverine

A still image from a video about the legend of Yamoria and the giant wolverine. The animation is based on paintings by Beaulieu. (Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre/Cogent/Benger Productions)

'A humble guy'

Beaulieu spent one year at the Banff school before returning to Rae (now Behchoko) where he continued his career. According to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, his work can be found across the world, including in collections held by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Vatican.

"He was a humble guy," Zoe said. "He didn't care too much about luxury, he just lived a simple life. As long as he had money to take care of his family, that was the extent of [it]."

Zoe — himself a life-long artist — said Beaulieu was a spontaneous painter who often began a work of art in the morning based on dreams he had the night before.

In recent years, Beaulieu faced a personal struggle when in 2009, 34 sled dogs under his care had to be euthanized and he faced animal neglect charges which were eventually stayed. At the time, he said the controversy surrounding the event had affected his motivation to make art.

Zoe said he expects a service will be held for Beaulieu in Behchoko, but details were not yet available.

With files from Kate Kyle