Brain injury survivor donates Gord Downie painting to Caldwell First Nation

After suffering a severe brain injury, Debbie Kay turned to art as a way to heal. Now an accomplished artist, she's gifting a portrait of Gord Downie to Caldwell First Nation as a way of keeping his legacy alive.

'I knew I wanted to gift it, and I wanted to gift it somewhere that he would have liked'

Windsor artist Debbie Kay with her portrait of the late Tragicall Hip frontman Gord Downie. (Arms Bumanlag/CBC)

After suffering a severe brain injury five years ago, Windsor resident Debbie Kay discovered art classes as a way to heal.

"I just went from not being able to draw a stick person before I hit my head, to actually having talent," she said. "And I surprised myself."

What started as a therapy turned into a passion, as Kay developed an eye for painting over the past three years. She started with simple flower arrangements, but is now painting portraits — the latest of which holds a place close to her heart.

When she heard that Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie was terminally ill with brain cancer, she went to work. 

"I listened to his music and I started painting him," said Kay. "He was just somebody I looked up to as an artist, musician, poet, everything like that."

The portrait took her months to paint and Kay planned to complete the piece before Downie passed away. On the day of his death, Kay said she locked herself in her studio to finish the painting she "wanted to get done for him."

The artist said she followed Downie's "politics" when it came to advocating for Indigenous communities in Canada, a passion her father shared as well.

He was a teacher in a remote First Nation outside of Montreal and a fierce promoter for the community's rights said Kay, who added her father inspired her to do something with her artwork as well.

"I knew I wanted to gift it, and I wanted to gift it somewhere that he would have liked," said Kay.

Debbie Kay is gifting a portrait of Gord Downie to Caldwell First Nation. 2:12

That's when she reached out to the Caldwell First Nation to see if they would like to accept her artistic gift. Kay said she was nervous to make the call. 

"I wasn't sure what kind of reaction I would get," she said. "But the reaction I got was something I could have never dreamed of. Basically they are ecstatic and looking forward to receiving the painting."

The Downie portrait will be mounted and framed before its presented to the Caldwell First Nation later this month. 

"I hope my little painting kind of keeps his legacy around," said Kay.