Deaf, two-spirited Indigenous painter in Regina uses art to overcome challenges

Torrie Ironstar says he was born to do art. As a child he painted, sculpted and worked with mixed media. Being a deaf, two-spirited artist on the Prairies has thrown him many hurdles in his young life, but his art has given him an outlet to overcome.

'I start to see where I am and see what my identity led to this moment,' says Torrie Ironstar

Torrie Ironstar in his home studio in Regina. (Matt Howard/CBC)

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.

Torrie Ironstar, pictured here with one of his fresh canvases, has ties to both Carry the Kettle First Nation and Ocean Man Band in Saskatchewan. (Matt Howard/CBC )

"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."

Torrie Ironstar says he tries to paint on a budget. 'It pushes my creativity more to expand and see how I can create piece with $30 on supplies and how can I find deals on canvases or any materials.' (Matt Howard/CBC)
'I always love arts because it’s the best thing to have it in the world and to see people fall in love with my works and hang it on the walls of their homes,' Ironstar says. (Matt Howard/CBC )

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."

'I dealt with bullying in schools, called names by teachers or interpreters, bullied everyday, and I had no understanding of how can I deal with pain back in the day? So I started to paint and it started to show me how to deal with it, it showed me to go through it,' Ironstar says. (Matt Howard/CBC )

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."

'I’m not a rich artist. I’m a more hardworking artist and it helps me to have some income to provide supports for my mother and take care of my mother’s needs,' Ironstar says. (Matt Howard/CBC )

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.

These are some of the shirts Torrie Ironstar created at Articulate. (articulate ink, website )

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

Torrie Ironstar, pictured here, says art helped him tell stories and overcome bullying as a child. (Supplied, Torrie Ironstar)

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."

Torrie Ironstar says he enjoys using mixed media because of the textures involved. (Matt Howard/CBC)

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.

'I want people to know that I’m a self taught artist because art is a huge part of my whole life,' Ironstar says. (Matt Howard/CBC)

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."

About the Author

Ntawnis Piapot is Nehiyaw Iskwew from Piapot Cree Nation. She has a journalism degree from the University of Regina, and is a graduate from the INCA Media and Intercultural Leadership Program from the First Nations University. Ntawnis has been a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, APTN National News, CTV Regina, VICE News, J-Source and Eagle Feather News. Email: