Calgary·Video

Young students help paint 400 buffalo on Indigenous artist's mural unveiled at Calgary school

Every elementary student at a northeast Calgary school painted a buffalo on a mural unveiled Wednesday — as well as learning more about the creature's powerful symbolism in Indigenous culture from the Blackfoot artist behind the project.

Students and staff at Catherine Nichols Gunn School helped Blackfoot artist Ryan Willert create the artwork

Artist Ryan Willert unveiled his latest mural at Catherine Nichols Gunn School in northeast Calgary Wednesday. The mural contains 400 small buffalo drawings, painted by the school's staff and students. (Julie Debeljak/CBC News)

Every elementary student at a northeast Calgary school painted a buffalo on a mural unveiled Wednesday — as well as learning more about the creature's powerful symbolism in Indigenous culture from the Blackfoot artist behind the project.

The mural painted by Blackfoot artist Ryan Willert at Catherine Nichols Gunn School in northeast Calgary was unveiled Wednesday.

"What I did was outline each and every one of these, so that each and every student of this school was able to paint a buffalo as well as the faculty — and so this gave the school the chance to also be a part of my artwork," said Willert, who's from the Siksika Nation east of Calgary.

The mural also features a couple of thunderbolts, because, Willert explained, 'my Grandfather carried the thunder pipe, so I did it for him.' (Julie Debeljak/CBC News)

"It's great, because the children here are like little buffaloes. They're starting life, and there's gonna be many storms."

The mural was commissioned by the school through an Education Matters grant, said principal Steve Wigglesworth.

"We often look for artists in residence and also try to honour our Indigenous population within our school, so we were very happy to learn about Ryan, and the work he's done with other schools and in other cities," Wigglesworth said.

"He's worked with Mount Royal University, so we were really honoured he was able to work with this experience with our school."

Every elementary student at a northeast Calgary school painted a buffalo on a mural unveiled Wednesday. 0:41

In addition to creating the new mural, Willert also taught the students a bit about the history and culture of his community.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for students to learn some of the history and Indigenous culture within our society," Wigglesworth said.

"There's lots of great teachings — for this buffalo and for them to understand the whole piece about being courageous and taking on challenges head-on is a powerful life lesson and understanding of the culture and history within our country."

Each buffalo contains all or some of four different colours, which symbolize the four seasons, the four elements — earth, sky, water and fire — and also all of the races, 'because we’re all brothers and sisters,' said Willert. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

Powerful symbolism

Willert explained the powerful symbolism of the buffalo.

"The buffalo will always run toward the storm, instead of away from the storm," he said.

"As a child, [students are] going to be experiencing many difficulties. As an adult, they're going to be experiencing many difficulties.

"So the buffalo is very good for the children to learn about, and also, in this territory, where the Blackfoot was, this was our spirit animal. And this is what helped us in our life."

Julie Debeljak