Tag Archives: wisdom

Celebrating Native Artists’ Visions

12 May
"October" by Sydney Kirkness

“October” by Sydney Kirkness

In the image created for the month of October, Sydney Kirkness paints a sturdy lone bull elk against a scene rich with fall colours—a foreground of gold, salmon, orange, and rust with a sprinkling of falling leaves leading to the blue spruce and pine of the forest. In the latter part of the year, the life cycle enters maturity for which the elk is a fitting animal representative, the essence of noble strength and stamina that brings us far in life. Above the warm fall colours, Sydney paints the cool blues, suggestive of oncoming winter, emphasized by the black silhouettes of geese flying south for the winter.

"November" by Sydney Kirkess

“November” by Sydney Kirkess

For November, Sydney brings the viewer into oncoming winter with a cool palette, all shades of blue from the deep blue of the towering forest pine to the white-blue of the snowy landscape. The only warm colour is in the deer’s reddish winter coat and in tan tufts of grass about to be covered over in the driving snow. The scene seems to be just before the ice forms, the trees reflected in the last of the frosty open water. The deer, alert, caught in the moment, looks ready to head for the cover of the forest.

"December" by Sydney Kirkness

“December” by Sydney Kirkness

The last image, created by Sydney for December, shows an absence of animal life in the world of wintery slumber. Sydney paints the scene in the cool blues, as the blanket of snow covers the earth. The band of sky above the forest is a pastel purple, adding depth to the quiet scene. Life hibernates, as the year comes to a close. The circular form of the image reminds us that the seasons are cyclical and that the whole pattern will begin again.

Such are the wonderful images painted by Sydney Kirkness and Moses Bignell for the staff and generations of students of Joe A. Ross School in The Pas, Manitoba. During my Artist in the Schools visit, I was fortunate to pass by these paintings over the course of two weeks as I taught. I feel honoured to have had the chance to reflect on the fine work of these wise and talented native artists’ and to celebrate the gifts their paintings continue to bring to viewers.

Native Artist Sydney Kirkness

4 May

I return with enthusiasm to my discussion of the fine art and career of Native artist Sydney Kirkness, whose paintings I discovered during my Artists in the Schools residency at Joe A. Ross School. A close reading of his paintings reveals the mystery of creation at work and a mature artist at ease with composition, colour, and spiritual symbolism.

"January" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“January” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

In the image he created for January, Sydney employs a delicate sense of movement as the wings of the realistically rendered Snowy Owl follow the circular shape. The subtle, pale colours and cool palette contribute to the sense of the lonely and lovely depths of winter, while the owl reminds us that life and the hunt that is necessary for survival go on all year. As well, from a mythical perspective, the owl is a liminal bird who exists at the threshold between one world and another, between one year and the next, a visionary being who sees into the past and forward into the future. Behind the owl, we see the vast stretch of snow and the edge of the snow-covered forest. As a keen observer of the natural world, Sydney paints the white orb of the sun surrounded by an ice halo, otherwise known of as a nimbus, icebow, or gloriole, a phenomena produced by ice crystals or ice diamonds in very cold weather. A circle within a circle within a circle…

"February" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“February” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

February in Manitoba’s north is a frigid month. Sydney paints a spirit face that reminds the viewer of the ancestors, those who have gone before, who have become part of the land on which they once tread. Or the face might be Old Man Winter, winter being the time of the year associated with old age. Again, Sydney employs the subtle pastel palette with a representational perspective. There is a mist before the forest, a natural phenomena created by the warmth of the rising sun on the cold air, emphasizing spiritual presence.

"March" by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

“March” by Sydney Kirkness, 1991

For the month of March, Sydney chooses an earthy, vibrant palette of warm colours, deep oranges, browns and blacks in the background that leads to the white orb of the sun at the centre, all of which emphasizes the return of the sun and warmth to the Northern Hemisphere. The swirling movement of the two beautifully rendered eagles is created as Sydney paints the eagles in such a way that they (and the viewer’s gaze) follow the circle in a spiraling spiritual flight toward the sun, toward the sacred centre, toward the unknown spiritual Great Mystery at the heart of all life.

Discussing the evolution of Sydney Kirkness’s art, writer Andrea Geary in “Arborg business owner promotes talents of local artists” outlines how Sydney serendipitously brought art in for framing to Sylvia Gislason, who then went on to become his agent, promoting his work in a career that “snowballed,” with his work selling nationally and internationally. He sold up to one hundred paintings a year.

Sydney and Agnes Kirkness met in 1977. They married and raised a family together; Agnes watched her husband’s career evolve. As Agnes Kirkness confirmed in her 2013 conversation with me, Sydney liked to paint at night when the children were in bed and the household was quiet, painting into the wee hours. He painted from nature and his dreams. Agnes recalled that he would say to her “I can see the picture already,” and he would go on to give her a description, but Agnes let me know that she couldn’t visualize what Sydney saw in his mind’s eye. “I don’t have that talent,” she added, with humour. “But my grand-daughter does!”

In my next entry, I will conclude this blog sequence with musings on the last months of the year, as painted by Sydney Kirkness…

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….

Sharing a Tale of Transformation

9 Nov
My Illustrated All-Ages Fairytale, Tiktala

My Illustrated All-Ages Fairytale, Tiktala

Another highlight of my visit to Joe A. Ross School was that I was able to read and share my all-ages fairy tale, Tiktala, with students in the three Grade Five classrooms who were good listeners and kind and receptive as I read to them. I told students that Tiktala started from a dream and the creation of Tiktala involved a five year process from the beginning dream to the finished published book.

Opening Page in Tiktala with Beautiful Illustration by Laszlo Gal of Inuit Homes and Northern Lights

Opening Page in Tiktala with Beautiful Illustration by Laszlo Gal of Inuit Homes and Northern Lights

To acquaint my blog readers with Tiktala, as the story opens, the elders of the village have called a meeting because the people are forgetting the old ways. We learn there are many soapstone carvers who sell their work for high prices but who don’t care about the animal spirits who enter the stones. Tiktala, an Inuit girl, lets the group know that she wants to become a soapstone carver. She is not like her mother who believes in spirits and she is not like her father who has lost his belief in everything.

Tiktala Lets the Villagers Know She Wants to Become a Soapstone Carver

Tiktala Lets the Villagers Know She Wants to Become a Soapstone Carver

Tiktala has her own reasons for wanting to carve—to be famous and admired, to make money to buy things, and above all, to gain her depressed father’s attention. While some villagers think she is too young, Iguptak, the wisest woman of the village sends Tiktala on a spirit quest.

Little would Tiktala have imagined it to be possible but she is transformed into a seal. Another seal appears, Tulimak, who is supposed to take Tiktala on the journey north for summer fishing. We discover that Tulimak is angry and hates humans for what she has suffered. Without a way out, Tiktala and Tulimak make the challenging expedition north together. What transpires is that Tiktala goes on a life altering journey, undergoing the artists’ task of learning to care about what she wants to create.

As it turned out, at Joe A. Ross School, the students were captivated by the story, and the teachers decided to purchase a class set of Tiktala books and my Tiktala Teacher’s Guide (Available on my Teachers Pay Teachers site. Readers can press on my link to find it. Tiktala can be purchased too through popular booksellers such as Amazon and Chapters and McNally Robinson (online and otherwise))

Tiktala Teacher's Guide

Tiktala Teacher’s Guide

My Tiktala Teacher’s Guide is a rich resource that explores First Nations concepts such as the connection to nature, shamans, vision quests, humans’ connections to animals, and spirit guides. I was so delighted to know that Joe A. Ross teachers would bring students through this study. As well, the guide allows teachers to explore with students the many deep themes in Tiktala: the hero journey, the development of the artist, revenge and forgiveness, environmental awareness, parent/child relationships, transformation, and human creativity vs. destructiveness. A further joyful aspect of the guide is the in-depth exploration of Laszlo Gal’s illustrations, after which students create their own illustrated transformation tales.

In my next entry, I will share with readers an unexpected pleasure I received during my visit to Joe A. Ross school, as I learned about captivating art created by a local native artist…

Celebrating PACER National Bullying Prevention Center

28 Apr

As a new feature of my blog, I will gradually add sites that highlight anti-bullying resources. My husband, Brian MacKinnon, is an anti-poverty activist who has been the Founder and Director of the Y-Not? Anti-Poverty Program for the past twelve years—a program that has enhanced the health and hope of inner city, underprivileged kids by providing youth with over 12,000 memberships to the YMCA/YWCA recreation facility.

As an anti-poverty activist and retired inner city English teacher, Brian is committed to the anti-bullying agenda; in a 2012 Winnipeg Free Press article, he noted reference to PACER, a National Bullying Prevention Center in the U.S.A., an organization with much to offer in anti-bullying consciousness-raising. Their belief is that: The End of Bullying Begins with You. Their hopeful message is that individuals can bring about change.

We can all make a difference in creating a beautiful peaceful world.

We can all make a difference in creating a beautiful peaceful world.

When you peruse PACER’S website, you find a valuable collection of anti-bullying tools: videos, stories, resources (bookmarks, hand-outs, classroom toolkits, a school event planning kit, and more), petitions, news, and sites for kids/teens. As well, a newsletter keeps readers up to date on the activities in October, the month chosen in the U.S.A. for a concerted focus on the anti-bullying agenda.

PACER is an inclusive organization that welcomes others to post their anti-bullying programs in the Champions section on their site, which I have chosen to do. Each Champion entry represents individuals or groups who make concerted efforts to bring focus to the pervasive human activity of bullying. The more we shine light on our negative behavior and make efforts to understand, prevent, and alter our very human propensity for bullying, the more we can hope to create a safe, peaceful, creative world.

Modernist Moment

26 Apr
On the Way to the Sky Train

On the Way to the Sky Train

In Celebration of International Women’s Day

9 Mar
A Wall of Student Artwork at Henry G. Izaat School

A Wall of Student Artwork at Henry G. Izaat School

In celebration of International Women’s Day (a day late), I post this latest instalment of student letters of advice to Echo. These students reach back in mythic time to bolster Echo’s spirits and to give her the confidence to believe in herself instead of pining away over Narcissus. While students project their insights toward a figure outside of themselves, in fact they are finding out about their own inner wisdom and resources for self-sufficiency.

Echo is a part of every person’s psyche. We all have the capacity to undervalue ourselves and overvalue others, even when they are negative towards us. Writing these letters helps students to strengthen their own ability to achieve self-love. For women around the world, the ability to live with independence and pride is essential to the well-being of humankind.

An Engaged Student's Rendition of Echo in the Cave

An Engaged Student’s Rendition of Echo in the Cave

Letter One

Ms. Echo,
c/o 1 Echoey Cave
Ancient Greece

Dear Ms. Echo,

I’m so sorry that you got so let down that you’re hiding in a cave wasting away. But you should really go out and have fun. You could meet people and go out. Just leave the cave soon. You could go on a train and leave to go somewhere and have a party. You could also find another guy.

Yours Truly, L.

Letter Two

Ms. Echo,
c/o 1 Echoey Cave
Ancient Greece

Dear Ms. Echo,

I’m sorry about what happened to you with Narcissus. He is not worth your love. He is handsome but not kind. But to move on, you might want to try making a friend to help you get through it. Believe me, your friends will make you feel a lot better! Think about what you love to do, like soccer or dancing. Try to join some kinds of club, because I promise, doing what you want to do for once will make you feel a lot more confident. Try to think about what you’re good at and try to realize that there are many things that you are good at. You are very good at many things. I guarantee it.

Yours Truly, I.

Letter Three

Ms. Echo,
c/o 1 Echoey Cave
Ancient Greece

Dear Ms. Echo,

Echo, stop lurking and weeping in a cave. Go to your parents and get some friends. Don’t be fooled by looks. Narcissus is a handsome little demon. That’s all! He is MEAN!!

Find someone with a similar personality. That will most likely be the best choice. Now go and don’t just be a voice. Be a person. Have a happy life!

Yours Truly, C.

Letter Four

Ms. Echo,
c/o 1 Echoey Cave
Ancient Greece

Dear Ms. Echo,

Hello Echo. I’m Ch. I read your story. So tragic. You deserve better. Even though he was beautiful, it matters what’s on the inside. You’re pretty and forgot what matters.

I suggest what you would love to do. You could become a model because of your beauty. A beauty pageant contestant and you could just let someone love you for you!

Yours Truly, Ch.

Letter Five

Vibrant Student Color Work of Adorable Baby Narcissus

Vibrant Student Color Work of Adorable Baby Narcissus

Ms. Echo,
c/o 1 Echoey Cave
Ancient Greece

Dear Ms. Echo,

Please leave your cave! Find someone who really loves you! You are so much better than you think! Please join civilization! Find a group where you belong. Let me tell you this: hiding is not a good solution! Live your life! Enjoy all the good things that will happen if you leave your cave. Please, oh please, listen!

Yours Truly, N.

Letter Six

Ms. Echo,
c/o 1 Echoey Cave
Ancient Greece

Dear Ms. Echo,

You have to leave the cave and try to make friends outside or join a club. You always have to focus on yourself and not on Narcissus :). Don’t mind him. You just have to believe in yourself!

Yours Truly,  B.

Letter Seven

Ms. Echo,
c/o 1 Echoey Cave
Ancient Greece

Dear Ms. Echo,

Don’t you feel so lonely in your caves? Stop swooning over Narcissus. Get out there more! Go back to your village. Find some friends. Join a club. Just make sure you don’t spend all your time wasting away in those dark, cold, lonely caves.

Yours Truly, M. 🙂

Letter Eight

Ms. Echo,
c/o 1 Echoey Cave
Ancient Greece

Dear Ms. Echo,

I’m so sorry to hear that you have been hiding in caves.

I will give you some advice. You should try to make some friends. Stay out of caves and you will have lots of friends. Be more proud and believe in you. Believe you can achieve.

Yours Truly, M.

Letter Nine

Ms. Echo,
c/o 1 Echoey Cave
Ancient Greece

Dear Ms. Echo,

I am so sorry that you hide in caves, hiding from the world. But it does not have to be that way. If you want to live your life right, by caring about yourself more. Tell yourself that you are beautiful. Say that you can do anything that you try to do. And you could go to a town and try to make friends by entering a dance group or a dance competition. Those are some ways to be happy.

Yours Truly, M.

In my next entry, readers will find more letters to Narcissus, that mythological fellow whose lack of empathy is remarkable…