Deaf, two-spirited Indigenous painter in Regina uses art to overcome challenges
'I start to see where I am and see what my identity led to this moment,' says Torrie Ironstar
This article was originally published on May 8, 2019.
Torrie Ironstar has not spoken a word in the 33 years he has been alive.
Ironstar was born deaf. He likes to tease and share jokes, but does so through an interpreter.
He also speaks to the world through his art.
"I love art because it's my only way to learn, to gain experience, to translate the history into my own interpretation, able to teach other people or show what story I tell - through arts," he said through an interpreter.
"I choose art to communicate, and to receive communication."
The white brick, tile fixtures and large window make the cozy art studio in the basement of Ironstar's home bright, much like the vibrant paint he uses in his Indigenous portraits.
The colours he uses have different meanings for him.
"Tourquoise ... I identify as a spiritual colour, because it's very calm, mediating and very powerful colour," he said.
"I find red as passionate and adaptive colour. Look at our skin. We are Indigenous and we have that colour tone. We are passionate people and we adapting to anything since the early years of colonization — so I always add red on the portrait faces and hands, arms."
Being deaf has heightened his sense of touch, he said. This is reflected in the art he produces.
"I am able to feel the vibrations from anything around me, so I choose that on the painting which is using textures, use the types of paper or anything that leaves the textures to stand out on the canvas. It's my trademark or artist signature," he said.
"I rarely leave canvas without texture. It drives me crazy because I require textures first - so it's the way, how I feel about the painting: smooth, curves, soft-swirled, sharp edges, rough surface, all of those are based on how I am feeling and I want people to feel it and be able to understand."
Jobs can be scarce for Ironstar. He said he has had negative experiences with employers who do not view him as a valuable asset because of his disability. He said he is able-bodied and willing to do hard work, taking on any job he can find, such as janitorial work.
"I know how there's stigma around those positions but I don't mind," said Ironstar.
He takes care of his elderly mother, using his money to get her the things she needs, pay a few bills. Whatever is left goes to buy art supplies.
He used to work at Articulate Ink - a Regina silk screening company. That job was a success for Ironstar. While there, he used his artistic abilities to create "Justice for Colten Boushie" and "Justice for Tina Fontaine" T-shirts, with partial proceeds going to the affected families.
Ironstar depends on a translator outside his home or text messages for day-to-day interactions with people. He has one older sister who is also deaf. She helped him learn how to do sign language.
He said more supports are needed for the deaf community to have a good quality of life.
"It's hard to have full-interpreter service for university or college. There are not many services provided — only limited — and I'm basically stuck in between, because I want to get a degree — but no interpreter," Ironstar said.
"It's challenging. I'm still not giving up."
Bullied and shamed: growing up deaf
Ironstar said art helped him overcome challenges he faced as a child.
"It's my mediation to co-operate with my thoughts and my emotions that I absorbed every day or experienced some negatives toward my background," he said.
"I let it out on the canvas, see it disappear, with textures, colours, shapes, 'till it changes into good and beautiful work. Then I feel good and know that I achieved it."
He recalls struggling at school. He said his disability made him a target for bullies both in the classroom and on the playground.
"In Grade 6, called out by a teacher and made me stand up in front of the whole class. The school forced me to go back to the Grade 2 or 3 classroom to relearn math when I was in Grade 8," Ironstar said.
"I was extremely embarrassed because of the interpreter, the poor communication, and the interpreter interpreted different words like, twisted it around, than what I said. I had good math skill."
He said it was especially difficult to be singled out for being deaf by his teachers and classmates.
"I will never forget how I felt when I walked in Grade 2 or 3 class, see all younger students and teacher smirked and interpreter just chuckled. I will never forget how teacher mistreated my sister, it was hell to deal with it," said Ironstar.
He counts Andy Warhol and Indigenous artist Kevin Redcrow as some of his greatest artistic influences. Frida Kahlo stands above all others — he calls her his art muse.
"The pain through her works that she dealt through her whole life is just powerful… her works are very open to who she is, she shows people what she was. She doesn't care if they don't like her or hate her," said Ironstar.
"I can identify with her because I was always an outcast, people judged me for being weird, always think of me as the lowest level of the society, expected me to fail. I was always being criticized for who I am as Indigenous, two-spirited, and an artist."
Ironstar is having an art show with Sakewewak this summer and is currently working with Making Treaty 7, a Calgary-based cultural society, for an upcoming theatre production.
He said opportunities like this give him the chance to do more storytelling through art.
"Art is a way to teach me and able to show me where my identity comes from and able to start building the bond with it," Ironstar said.
"It gives me life and I give life to people who love my work."