Manitoba

Terminally ill Indigenous painter who struggled with homelessness takes 'journey into the sacred' through art

Forty-six-year-old Leonard Bighetty is dying of cancer in hospice. He says being surrounded by art he has created throughout his life brings him joy and the strength to face his diagnosis.

'I am not afraid to die,' says Winnipeg artist Leonard Bighetty

Winnipeg artist Leonard Bighetty adds finishing touches to his latest work. Bitghetty, who has cancer, is in palliative care. 'He has been a tremendous gift to all of us here,' says Morberg House's Marion Willis. 'His art is so deeply rooted in his spirituality.' (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Leonard Bighetty's room at Grace Hospice, a palliative care facility on the grounds of Winnipeg's Grace Hospital, is an explosion of life, colour and creativity. 

Acrylics line the walls depicting his childhood in Pukatawagan — part of Mathias Colomb First Nation in northern Manitoba — his struggle on the streets when he was homeless, and what he calls his "journey into the sacred."

He points to his most recent creation — one which is, perhaps, his last.

"The eagle is the one that carries our prayers to the creator. I chose the dark colours — the blue is for the spirit world. Peace and harmony. The eagle symbolizes love," said Bighetty.

Bighetty explains: 'the eagle is the one that carries our prayers to the Creator'

4 years ago
Duration 0:32
Forty-six-year-old Leonard Bighetty is dying of cancer in hospice. He says being surrounded by art he has created throughout his life brings him joy and the strength to face his diagnosis.

"The purple is for wisdom — getting to know yourself on a deeper level. I will put a thunderbird head in the clouds which represents cleansing, purity and strength."

Never made money

Despite this rich gallery of masterful art in a dying man's room, Bighetty has never been able to making a living from his talent.

He's dying of cancer, and has only in the last few years had a stable place to live — and make art — after connecting with Morberg House, a shelter for the homeless.

Bighetty, an entirely self-taught artist, has been painting since he was 10 years old.

The walls in Bighetty's room at Grace Hospice are covered with his art. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

But growing up poor and later battling addiction, he ending up selling pieces drawn with pencil and crayons for $20 on the street to buy food.

"I had no place to paint. People kept stealing from me," Bighetty said.

"I had no guidance on how to save money. I wasted it all. Spent it all. It went for alcohol and drugs. I hung out with the wrong crews. It took me a long time to realize I didn't have to be surrounded by them."

He spent seven or eight years on the street, sleeping on the ground and in stairwells, without a home or a permanent place to create.

"It was very cold and very empty. I didn't have shelter. And my spirit felt lonely because I felt like I didn't have any help — any spiritual guidance. And you know, you speak to someone who has spiritual guidance, at the end of the day, they go home. I went under a bridge."

Therapy, healing through art

And yet it is his art, Bighetty says, that kept him alive. Light and liberation came with exploring his fears and inner darkness with brush and colour.
'My artwork has saved me so many times in my life,' says Bighetty. 'It saves me from being afraid. It allows me to feel like I am in touch with the Creator and being with good people.' (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"I didn't just remember the pain of what I experienced as a child. Creating brought joy back to me. There's a lot of good things to remember as well. Not just the hurtful things," he said.

"When you explore those dark places there is also a good dark — things that were good that you had forgotten about. These paintings remind me of what was good in my childhood. Special people and special places."

His inspiration for the majority of his work has come from nature. 

"I never realized why I felt good in the middle of nature. Later in life you understand why. It's because you are grounded. You are connected to it. You are part of it. It becomes you. You become it."

Bighetty visits with Morberg House executive director Marion Willis. Willis helped Bighetty find a stable home, and a studio where he could paint, at Morberg House. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

And there are abstracts too, also influenced by nature. He points to one that could be a storm, water, or clouds, depending on the person's interpretation. 

It was his art, he says, that helped him realize his talent was a gift.

"I needed to apologize to creation for the misuse I have had for my art. How I wasted time and money. I turned it around by helping people with it — giving it away as gifts, donations. Some of it was featured in a showing on Canada Day.  I have worked with children and showed them how to paint."

A home at Morberg House

It was at the 2014 funeral for Faron Hall — the homeless man who was often referred to as "Winnipeg's homeless hero" for rescuing a teen from the Red River in 2009 — where Bighetty connected with Morberg House director Marion Willis.

Willis gave Bighetty, who was himself homeless at the time and already sick, not only a home but — for the first time in his life — space for his own art studio.

"I knew I had cancer," Bighetty said.

"I needed to get away from the homelessness. I needed that privacy to have my own clean place … where I can work and place things and people won't steal them. Where I can leave my art out and don't have to hide it."

'It was very cold and very empty': Bighetty describes years of homelessness

4 years ago
Duration 0:38
Forty-six-year-old Leonard Bighetty is dying of cancer in hospice. He says being surrounded by art he has created throughout his life brings him joy and the strength to face his diagnosis.

Bighetty says it was at Morberg House that he gained back his ability to trust not just people, but also his trust in a higher power and his love for the Creator.

Morberg House has become a gallery of his work. A spectacular mural lines the wall up the stairs. His acrylics adorn the walls on the main floor.

Willis says Bighetty's art is finally being recognized — recognition that sadly, she says, comes too late.

Tribute planned at Morberg

"Now as the sun sets on Leonard … the sun rises on a new undertaking here [at Morberg House], which is an art studio as a tribute to him," said Willis. 

She plans to set up an art therapy studio on the third floor of the house in honour of Leonard Bighetty. She is looking for a volunteer to get it started.

"He has been a tremendous gift to all of us here. His art is so deeply rooted in his spirituality. And we find that in the street population, people who have really struggled in life and can't communicate verbally some of the challenges they face, we find they are masterful at expressing it through art."

As for Bighetty, he says he is filled with peace and hope for whatever time he has left.

"My artwork has saved me so many times in my life. It saves me from being afraid. It allows me to feel like I am in touch with the Creator and being with good people. I have never stopped loving life and I have never stopped loving the Creator. That's the strength I have," he said.

Bighetty says his art gives him the strength to deal with cancer

4 years ago
Duration 1:10
Forty-six-year-old Leonard Bighetty is dying of cancer in hospice. He says being surrounded by art he has created throughout his life brings him joy and the strength to face his diagnosis.

That artwork has a movement, vibration and flow that seems to reflect his own beliefs.

"I am not afraid to die. I am willing to accept whatever happens to me. I am willing to carry on and I truly believe life carries on."

Bighetty painted this mural, which lines the wall up the stairs at Morberg House. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Marianne has always had a passion for seeking the truth. She began her career anchoring and reporting at CKX Brandon. From there she worked in both TV news and current affairs at CBC Saskatoon. For the past 25 years Marianne has worked in Winnipeg, both in radio and television. She was formerly a teacher in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

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