Lifelike portraits tell northern Indigenous stories of 'incredible resilience'

A decades-long effort to pencil out the faces and stories of people in northern Manitoba was fraught with challenges, but the final product — a collection of lifelike portraits of Indigenous elders — is a sight to behold.

Portraits of the North compiles vivid pencil drawings of elders with stories of life in Manitoba First Nations

Betsy Anderson is featured on the cover of Portraits of the North, a book of pencil drawings and stories by Winnipeg artist Gerald Kuehl out on Wednesday. (CBC)

A decades-long effort to pencil out the faces and stories of people in northern Manitoba was fraught with challenges, but the final product — a collection of lifelike portraits of Indigenous elders — is a sight to behold.

"The first year was extremely frustrating," Gerald Kuehl, the artist behind Portraits of the North, told CBC News ahead of the Wednesday book launch. "All the doors I thought I would open, they closed and that was very frustrating."

Kuehl set out to capture the stories of elders in the early 1990s. More than 100 such stories made it into the book, which Kuehl says was a strictly artistic endeavour at first that evolved into something deeper.

Gerald Kuehl sketches drawings in his studio in Winnipeg. (CBC)

"[It] talks powerfully about the social issues," Kuehl said. "This tells a serious story ... about Aboriginal people, and this is what they've gone through, this is how they've survived, they triumphed. Its enormous theme is their resilience, the incredible resilience of these people."

Things didn't always go so smoothly for Kuehl. Some elders initially perceived him as an outsider, and they weren't terribly keen to open up and let him into their world, he said.

"I almost quit way back in 1996. I almost said, 'This is not working out.'"

The first portrait

After a few hiccups in the project early on, Kuehl befriended Manigotagan (Hollow Water First Nation) resident Reg Simard, who agreed to help him forge relationships with people in the community.

"He said, 'Gerry, I get what you're going through. Tell you what: why don't you come out and meet my dad?'"

Simard introduced Kuehl to his father, Alex Simard, who became his first subject.

Alexander E. Simard was the first person who agreed to pose for Kuehl's project. (CBC)

Kuehl credits those early days of success to Reg Simard's help. It's what allowed him to gain access into communities who live off the land and record their life stories.

"First couple of years I was focusing on grassroots individuals, very intrigued by people who worked very hard, hunting, fishing, trapping, prospecting, miners, bush mechanics," Kuehl said. 

"And then, after a couple of years, what really happened was by me travelling there more and hanging out and staying with families, those connections growing, I started seeing some of the social issues."

The self-taught artist and photographer travelled more than 90,000 kilometres and into 43 Manitoba communities over the course of the book.

Betsy Anderson

After all of his travels came to an end and it was time to finish the book, Kuehl said he knew instantly who would grace the cover.

Betsy Anderson is one of several Indigenous elders featured in Portraits of the North. (CBC)

Betsy Anderson, a blind Saysi Dene elder from Tadoule Lake, shared her story with Kuehl. 

"She was 102 and she absolutely wore me out," Kuehl said, adding he spent hours listening to Anderson recall stories from the past and play the accordion and harmonica. "She never stopped talking."

'Little white man'

Charles Learjaw, another Tadoule Lake resident, initially refused to speak with Kuehl and insisted he leave the community. Kuehl silently persisted.

"I sat down cross-legged, no camera, no nothing. I didn't want him to see anything and I just looked at him. He just looked over me for minutes and minutes ... thinking, 'Well, that little white man is going to leave soon enough, I'm going to wait him out,'" Kuehl recalled. "Time went by and finally he started talking."

The book opens with a saying from Saysi Dene elder Charles Learjaw: "You have five fingers. I have five fingers. Only the colour of our skin is different, We are the same." (CBC)

Learjaw shared memories of the forced relocation of the Saysi Dene to Churchill in the 1950s.

"He stopped talking and says, 'Put up your hand,' and he had raised his hand," Kuehl said. "He says, 'I have five fingers, you have five fingers, only the colour of our skin is different. Tell the world what happened to my people.'"

'It's all their story'

"It was so touching ... I've never forgotten that," Kuehl said.

"Then I realized with my travels, of course, it's not just Charlie's story and his people. It is the Métis story. It's the story of the hydro power projects devastating communities. It's the residential schools. It is all their story."

Kuehl said he hopes his book is read by as many Canadians as possible so they understand, respect and admire Indigenous people and their culture.

"I can't see how you cannot," he said.

The launch for Portraits of the North is planned at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on Wednesday. Kuehl's next book, Portraits of the Far North, will be released next year.

"In 20 years, I've had some extraordinary experiences," he said. "The biographies in here are 500 words, give or take, but I know the stories behind the stories."

A decades-long effort to pencil out the faces and stories of people in northern Manitoba was fraught with challenges, but the final product — a collection of lifelike led portraits of Indigenous elders — is a sight to behold. 4:22

With files from Meagan Fiddler