Thunder Bay·Audio

'I like living': Young Indigenous artists heal pain through painting

The healing power of art was on display Friday at a First Nations high school art show in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations school learn from Woodland artist Saul Williams

'It makes me feel proud of myself,' Jaylene Harper of Keewaywin First Nation says of the painting she made during the three-day workshop with Saul Williams. (Jody Porter/CBC)
The challenges facing First Nations students in Thunder Bay, Ont., were transformed into beautiful works of art this week as teens got a chance to learn from well-known Woodland artist, Saul Williams.

The three-day workshop encouraged students to express themselves through paint on canvass and the results — about 20 works in total — were awe-inspiring.

Bright colours and nature scenes were common among about two dozen works on display during the Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School art show. (Jody Porter/CBC)
"Art is a healing process," said Williams, who travelled to Thunder Bay from his home in North Caribou Lake First Nation to work with the students.

"If you look at these pictures there's a lot of pain the kids are expressing and they're healing," he said.

Williams said he believes the transformative power of art is in learning who you are by expressing yourself.

'They're proud of their art and they're a joy to work with,' says artist Saul Williams of his time spent with students, like Jaylene Harper at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. (Jody Porter/CBC)
It's a lesson that is particularly important to the students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, who must travel hundreds of kilometres away from their homes and families to get their high school diploma.

Students came to class early and left late, because they were enjoying the work so much, he said.

"One student told me 'I like living'," Williams said, with a satisfied chuckle. "So I think something is happening here that is really positive."

Ariel Meekis of Deer Lake First Nation says there's a story that goes with her painting that she hopes to write one day. (Jody Porter/CBC)
Student Jaylene Harper, of Keewaywin First Nation said she hopes to pursue a career in science but working with Williams made her realize just how fun art can be.

"It makes me feel proud of myself," she said looking at her painting of a grandmother and granddaughter basking in the brilliant colours of a sunset outside a teepee.

Harper said she gets a warm feeling looking at the piece.

Montana Lachinette's painting One contains the colours Lachinette says he received in a traditional ceremony and gives the message that 'we're all one together,' he says. (Jody Porter/CBC)
"I feel pretty amazing when I look at it," Montana Lachinette, of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug said of his painting, titled One. "I never thought I'd be able to paint anything like that."

"I learned that if you make mistakes, it's okay because you can always fix them," he said.

Williams said he tried not to interfere as the students worked on their paintings. Instead, he waited until they asked for help.

"If they pursue their dreams, they'll get where they're going," Williams said.
All the participants in the workshop collaborated on this painting, that they hope to turn into prints to sell and raise money for more art supplies for the First Nations high school. (Jody Porter/CBC)