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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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….