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The Sacred Circle

1 Dec
"April" by Moses Bignell

“April” by Moses Bignell

When I saw that the paintings done by Sydney Kirkness and Moses Bignell were circular, a favorite passage from Black Elk Speaks, first published in 1932, came back to me. Before I carry on with Sydney Kirkness’s story, I wish to draw readers into the compelling and beautiful world view implied by the circle. As Black Elk tells us:

“You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living centre of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance….”

"May" by Moses Bignell

“May” by Moses Bignell

Black Elk continues: “This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours….”

"June" by Moses Bignell

“June” by Moses Bignell

Black Elk explains further: “The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were….”

"July" by Moses Bignell

“July” by Moses Bignell

Black Elk reveals more to his listeners: “The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children (Black Elk Speaks, as told through John G. Neihardt, a Bison Book, University of Nebraska, 194-196).”

"August" by Moses Bignell

“August” by Moses Bignell

Walking through Joe A. Ross School every day, as I proceeded to classrooms to teach students, I was gently affected by the circles of the seasons, created by the two native artists, Moses Bignell and Sydney Kirkness. The children of the school, whether they think consciously about the art or not, are likewise affected. As I read onward in the articles about Sydney Kirkness’s art, I found that once he returned to his path and to the creation of art, he also returned to the culture that had been taken from him. Journalist Jim Mosher pointed out that Sydney now saw “art as a medium to communicate that heritage to others, aboriginal youth in particular (The Interlake Spectator, Dec. 12, 1994).” Every day, students take in the vision of their cultural heritage.

"September" by Moses Bignell

“September” by Moses Bignell

All of the above images, of April, May, June, July, August, September, are the beautifully rendered work of Moses Bignell. Like Black Elk, he honours the changing seasons. I note the ties at the edge of the circles in April and June, like the ties of the drum that delivers the heartbeat of Mother Earth. In April, the geese come flying back, while snow lies on the ground. In May, the pond comes to life, and frogs swim again. From roots in the earth come flowers, and the generative force is in action. By June, geese are nesting, and into their circular nests comes the new life that is evident in July, where baby loons swim with their parents in the watery world. Moses paints August with an enigmatic symbolism, a goose with the sun at its heart, the sacred circular centre, the vibrant life of summer, around which leaves circle. September, and the greenery of summer begins the transition into fall colours, burgundies, rusts, browns, tans, while the moose, the big animals, traverse the rugged terrain. Such are the gifts that Moses Bignell brings to students and staff at Joe A. Ross school.

In my next entry, I will carry on with what I learned from reading on the art of Sydney Kirkness….

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Beautiful Spiritual Murals by Native Artists

30 Nov
"January" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“January” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

Sometimes we find ourselves touched in a profound way by the work of another artist. During the two weeks I taught in Joe A. Ross School, I had such an experience.

The school is shaped like an eagle, with wings outstretched for young learners to take flight. The hallways are structured off of a central square area and each of the four hallways is decorated with three large circular paintings that represent the spiritual transition of the months. Every day, as I entered the school, I walked past January, February, March….

"February" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“February” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

I found myself affected by the art, absorbed into the artists’ dreams. The images made me feel connected to the land surrounding the school as well as to a spiritual vision of our human place in nature. I was busy with teaching young students, but finally, in the staffroom, I asked the questions that had come to mind. Who was the artist, Sydney Kirkness, who signed the paintings back in 1991? Some of the paintings were unsigned. Were those Sydney’s paintings too, or was there another artist? I was told the unsigned paintings were done by a very fine artist, Moses Bignell.

"September" by Moses Bignell

“September” by Moses Bignell

A kindly man, Pat Young, said, “If you want to know about Sydney Kirkness’s art, ask Agnes Kirkness, the painter’s wife. Sydney passed away two years ago. She’s over at the Otineka Mall.” The next day—my last day at the school, I was able to go over. I found Agnes, a beautiful woman with a soulful face, having lunch with family in the food court. I explained that I was visiting Joe A. Ross School for Artists in the Schools and had become interested in her husband’s art. She told me I’d been teaching her grand-daughter who had an artistic gift too. Later, when I knew which girl she meant, Cynthia Halcrow, I was delighted to realize I’d already spoken to Cynthia about her gift, noting a subtle confidence and charm in her illustrations.

Cynthia and Tricia, two wonderful artists

Cynthia and Tricia, two wonderful artists

Agnes kindly said she’d meet me back at the school at the end of the day, with articles on Sydney, so I would understand his work more. That night, in the little cottage on Clearwater Lake in which I was staying, I read the articles before sleep. Outside the cottage was the dark of night and the rippling blue lake while inside, I put on a fire in the wood-burning stove and I read about artist, Sydney Kirkness. As I pieced together his story, my understanding of North deepened.

"March" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“March” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

As a child, Sydney was taken away from his family to be taught in the Birtle Indian Residential School, a tragedy experienced by Native Canadians until 1996. In an article, “Native artist reclaims his heritage,” by Jim Mosher, Sydney is quoted as saying “When I attended boarding school I lost my culture, my language, my native teachings.” Even so, at thirteen, a charcoal landscape won Sydney his first ribbon in the school art contest, and he realized that he might have a career in art.

Evening Comes to Clearwater Lake as I Read Onward

Evening Comes to Clearwater Lake as I Read Onward

In 1969, he ended up walking away from his art after graduating with a certificate from the Banff School of Fine Arts. “I just gave up…because my feelings were hurt,” Kirkness said in an interview, “I paint what I feel and when that’s destroyed, my painting is destroyed (“James Risdon, “New art techniques challenge Kirkness”). Sydney left art and drifted for ten years, during a desolate and lonely time. “I just felt empty without painting…I felt useless.” Then he returned to the place of his birth, Koostatak. “I had been lonesome. I wanted to return to my roots. (Interlake Spectator, Dec. 12, 1994)

Reading by the Wood Stove

Reading by the Wood Stove

As I sat in my cabin by the light of the fire, reading those words, I felt so moved. Such was the experience of the big-hearted man, Sydney Kirkness, who painted the beautiful spiritual murals I had walked past every day for the past two weeks. I could relate to his temperament. As so many artists have experienced, deep hurt can trigger self-denial and denial of one’s art and can create a perversion of one’s creative path. Sydney wandered lonely and broken for ten years. But the Good Red Road is always there, waiting for the traveller to return, and luckily, Sydney returned to his artistic path, a joy that I will delve into tomorrow….

Refilling the Well in the Creative Process

8 Nov
Clearwater Lake--TheThird Clearest Cleanest Lake in the World

Clearwater Lake–TheThird Clearest Cleanest Lake in the World

In my novel, The Beech Nut of Big Water Beach, the mentoring elderly woman artist, Cassandra Beech, takes twelve year old Munro and Alison to paint at the sand cliffs. After they paint for the morning, she takes them for a walk on the shore and tells them not to speak, but just to listen. What Munro hears is the sounds of rolling waves, of wind rustling in the clifftop trees, of birds and gulls. The passage in the novel goes on:

“So the three travelled down the cliffs and along the beach, listening to the slapping waves and the crying gulls, all the while being absorbed into the beautiful dream of the day….Finally, the Beech Nut turned around and made her way back to Munro and Alison. Munro felt exhilarated, filled to the brim with everything around him.

The Beech Nut spoke to her two young apprentices. ‘That,’ she said, ‘is one of the most important parts of painting—of making art of any kind. When we pour our creative energy into our work, we have to take time to be refreshed. I call it refilling the well.’(74).”

During my visit to Joe A. Ross School, where I taught my novel, The Beech Nut of Big Water Beach and students engaged in anti-bullying activities from my accompanying guide, I was so fortunate to have my well refilled. Friends from my visit to the Pas last year, Barb McLeod and Tim Williams, invited me out onto Clearwater Lake for a picnic and picturesque ride on their pontoon boat. Like Munro, we were absorbed into the beautiful dream of the day…

Looking into the Water from the Boat

Looking into the Water from the Boat

Following the Shore

Following the Shore

Shoreline Down from The Caves

Shoreline Down from The Caves

Tim steered the boat toward The Caves (otherwise known of as The Crevices), a unique provincial tourist destination, deep crevices that formed when rock masses split away from the shoreline cliffs. To leap from rock to rock, up one boulder and down another, amidst high cliffs and slices of rock, all the while peering into cool dark recesses leading into the earth, is an exhilarating experience.

Passing Close to Shore

Passing Close to Shore

Back on Land, The Sun Sets on a Lovely Excursion on Clearwater Lake

Back on Land, The Sun Sets on a Lovely Excursion on Clearwater Lake

Tomorrow, I will share with readers more about the creation of art at Joe A. Ross School…

Creative Immersion

7 Nov
Evening on Clearwater Lake

Evening on Clearwater Lake

As artists, we are always interpreting our world, perceiving the beauty that surrounds us at any given moment. During my visit to Joe A. Ross School in The Pas, Manitoba, I helped student create with joy during the school day, after which I was immersed in the beauty of my surroundings on Clearwater Lake—a pattern lived everyday by teachers in the area!

Reading My Illustrated Fairy Tale Pod the Wood Elf to Students

Reading My Illustrated Fairy Tale Pod the Wood Elf to Students

During my visit to Joe A. Ross School, I had single sessions with the Grades One to Five. I read my picture book, Pod the Wood Elf, to Grades One to Four and lead students in lively illustrations of emotions.

Artists at Work

Artists at Work

Careful Creators

Careful Creators

A Fine Illustrator of Emotions

A Fine Illustrator of Emotions

Artists and their Art

Artists and their Art

Cree Immersion Students and their Proud Teacher

Cree Immersion Students and their Proud Teacher

Artists Share their Work

Artists Share their Work

All Smiles

All Smiles

A Lively Display of Emotions

A Lively Display of Emotions

What a joy to work with students at Joe A. Ross School as they created illustrations of emotions with such care and creativity! In my next entry, I will share more about the creative process….

Raising Anti-Bullying Consciousness

5 Nov
A Student's Experience of Bullying is Like the Realm Below the Surface of a Lake--Expansive and Largely Unknown

A Student’s Experience of Bullying is Like the Realm Below the Surface of a Lake–Expansive and Largely Unknown

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

When teaching students about bullying, we ask ourselves, what do students already know? They have all experienced the bullying scenario, as bully, bullied, or bystander. So often, bullying happens at home, with parents and siblings involved, while at the same time, bullying goes on among peers. A student’s experience of bullying is like the submerged iceberg or the realm below the surface of a lake—expansive and largely unknown. Our job as educators is to grow in our own understanding of bullying in our lives so that we can help students to bring to the surface of consciousness their own experiences of bullying in order to enact change.

Short-Listed for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award

Short-Listed for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award

The Beech Nut of Big Water Beach Novel Study and Anti-Bullying Guide makes this process of growing self awareness thoughtful and joyful, given that students become experts on the bullying actions of the characters in the book. To gain understanding is a life-enhancing process.

The Grade Six students at Joe A. Ross School engaged in several activities meant to enhance their understanding of the bulling scenario in The Beech Nut of Big Water Beach and in their own lives. One such activity involved brainstorming their understanding of bullying definitions, including bully, bullied, bystander, witness, as well as physical, verbal, and relational bullying. After students came up with their definitions, we expanded on more ideas and wrote those down. Then, students illustrated scenes where Munro was being bullied in order to underscore the concepts visually.

Involved Learners

Involved Learners

Classroom Reading with Margaret Shaw-MacKinnon

Classroom Reading with Margaret Shaw-MacKinnon

Immersed in the Story

Immersed in the Story

Teacher Crystal Ross and Students

Teacher Crystal Ross and Students

Students with Author

Students with Author

Student Illustrators

Student Illustrators

Busy Creating

Busy Creating

Involved Artists

Involved Artists

At Joe A. Ross School, students created admirable artwork, each drawing advancing students’ knowledge of characters in the book. The facial expressions on some characters reveal personality, while clothes reflect 1970’s fashion.

Wonderful Student Art

Wonderful Student Art

Tomorrow, I will share more student art…

Ethereal Mirror

4 Nov
Cottage on Clearwater Lake

Cottage on Clearwater Lake

Imagine teaching by day and staying in a lakefront cottage by night. Such was my experience when visiting Joe A. Ross School in The Pas, Manitoba.

After school, I hopped in the car and drove twenty minutes to my cottage lodgings where every evening I was immersed in the beauty of nature and the shifting fall weather.  Stand with me on the shore to take in the view.

Far Shore on a Windy Day

Far Shore on a Windy Day

Moody Autumn Colours
Moody Autumn Colours

Twilight

Twilight

Warming the Cottage at Night

Warming the Cottage at Night

Part of the experience of artists in the Artists in the Schools Program is that we encounter a great variety of beautiful settings throughout the province. Looking up, down, around, myriad images bring the viewer into greater awe at the mysteriousness and poignancy of the natural world.

A Bird Peers Back

A Bird Peers Back

Looking Up

Looking Up

Reflections

Reflections

Serenity

Serenity

Far Shore on a Calm Evening

Far Shore on a Calm Evening

Ethereal Mirror

Ethereal Mirror

In my next entry, I return to the richness of the teaching day…

Creative Anti-Bullying Immersion

3 Nov
Pillars Representing the Stages of Human Life from Infancy to Old Age

Pillars Representing the Stages of Human Life from Infancy to Old Age

In my post yesterday, I wrote about how I visited Joe A. Ross School in The Pas, Manitoba, and the architecture of the building beautifully embodies concepts significant in Cree spirituality. In such a meaningful setting, I was privileged to teach enthusiastic students from Grades One to Six.

Vibrant Sky and School

Vibrant Sky and School

A highlight of my visit was that students in the three Grade Six classes began my novel, The Beech Nut of Big Water Beach, and the accompanying Novel Study and Anti-Bullying Guide, with the help of three skillful teachers, Crystal Ross, Myrna Ducharme, and Michelle Edwards. Together, over the two weeks we engaged in a variety of activities. We read the first five chapters which immediately engaged students as every kid has experienced the bullying scenario, whether as bully, bullied, or bystander, a major theme in the novel. A big plus is that the book is humorous, which draws in more young readers, and there is social intrigue and romance, always captivating themes.

Teacher Myrna Ducharme Reads The Beech Nut of Big Water Beach to the Class

Teacher Myrna Ducharme Reads The Beech Nut of Big Water Beach to the Class

More Students Involved in  the Reading and Listening Process

More Students Involved in the Reading and Listening Process

The World of Big Water Beach Comes to Life in the Mind's of Students

The World of Big Water Beach Comes to Life in the Minds of Students

The following synopsis will give blog readers an idea of what these Joe A. Ross students read in these chapters. The first chapter of the novel sets the stage for the bullying theme as we discover that the main character, Munro McLean, has been bullied all through Grades Five and Six, and that he has been called a nerd, dork, and geek, and has been thrown around, ridiculed and generally made miserable at school.

Teacher Crystal Ross and Students Immersed in Novel

Teacher Crystal Ross and Students Immersed in Novel

In the next chapter, we discover that Munro is popular at Big Water Beach, a great relief, but in order to stay popular, he has to avoid Cassandra Beech, an elderly woman who is a hermit and an artist, nicknamed The Beech Nut of Big Water Beach, and her grandniece Alison, who have decided they want Munro to create art with them.

Attentive Readers

Attentive Readers

In the following chapters, as Munro’s typical beach life unfolds, with swimming lessons, a game of Truth or Dare, a dog show and more, we are introduced to the fun-loving kids of Munro’s peer group, who we discover have a dark side, in that they begin to pick on Alison, the outsider. Munro, on the other hand, starts to secretly hang out with the Beech Nut and Alison to make art, and tension deepens and high antics increase as Munro madly tries to keep his life as an artist with the Beech Nut and Alison separate from his life within his peer group.

The Plot Thickens

The Plot Thickens

An activity that the teachers and I used was to allow students to draw ten pivotal characters in the novel. When students draw and visualize the characters, they engage more with them and can see them in their minds’ eyes more easily. Some students are visual learners who relate strongly to having the chance to draw.

Character Images are Projected and Students Immerse in Drawing

Character Images are Projected and Students Immerse in Drawing

Concentrating on Artwork

Concentrating on Artwork

Teacher Michelle Edwards Joins Students in Art Activity

Teacher Michelle Edwards Joins Students in Art Activity

In my next entry, I invite you to come with me to my lodgings during this Northern visit, a little cottage on the shores of the third clearest cleanest lake in the world, Clear Water Lake….