Terminally ill Indigenous painter who struggled with homelessness takes 'journey into the sacred' through art
'I am not afraid to die,' says Winnipeg artist Leonard Bighetty
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 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.
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
"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."
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.
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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."
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.
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."