Colleen Gray is a Metis artist who not only creates her own art, but helps those in need. She also has created a service project for herself and others to help artists of all ages in remote communities of Northern Canada.
Carrie: When did you first realize the importance of art in your life?
When I was in high school, I created a dragon whose scales were made up from bits and pieces of butterfly wings I’d been collecting for a few years. The powerful ripple of that mixed media piece so casually done without expectations, showed me how powerful my hands could be. I knew it would be important to me, but I had no idea how that would all manifest for my future as I pranced off to the next party.
Carrie: How would you describe your art?
Spiritual, sometimes guided, always felt deeply like an experience — sometimes angry, sometimes wanting to express my frustration at the slow pace of justice in Indigenous communities. I like to think that my art is sometimes the voice of a dream we’re all having. I want my work to reach beyond someone’s eyes and into their reason; I would like to know that when someone looks at a piece of my work, they’re seeing a glimpse into things only whispered about when words like “ceremony”, and “spirit” are used.
Carrie: Can you describe your artistic process to readers? For example, do you follow the same pattern and track when you develop an artwork from idea to product?
I love Facebook for this. When I am inspired to do some work, I love to unfold it on social media as it’s being created. Maybe it’s the likes and positive comments that feed the artist’s ego in me, or maybe it’s just that I like sharing my work so much that I can’t wait to open it up to the world. I feel like I’m creating with my friends around the table…but they’re unable to distract me lol.
Depending on the seriousness of the work, I often smudge before I begin. I smudge myself, the tools, the table, any music I have playing, the plants around me – I smudge my work space and invite any positive elements that might provide influence, to come inside and work with me. Sometimes I know what I’m trying to create, other times I just move my brushes in strokes that feel good to me and see what begins. Sometimes a story-feeling comes with the drawing, sometimes I build the story around the finished work – all depends on how it all feels when the brushes are put down.
Carrie: You also run a program called Art for Aid Project. Tell us about it!
The Art For Aid Project is all the passion I have for both art and helping people, being poured into boxes and shipped to remote communities. I believe in the ability of art to heal the spirit, as well as its ability to support the artistic voices of Canada’s First Artists.
Art supplies are key to art exploration. The costs of purchasing art items in remote communities is prohibitive at best, impossible if you’re a parent in a small fixed income. Teachers are the front line workers in the battle to keep kids in school within remote communities; boredom and temptation are always right around the corner and these teachers do a lot with very little. A package of pencil crayons may cost around $17.00 in a remote community and this cost makes a teacher or parent think twice when compared to buying the same item further south for about $8-10.00 per package.
I am a Metis artist and I use the sales of my artwork to put money in the shipping budget. New and gently used art supplies are collected from the impressive network of supporters who are true power behind The Art For Aid Project’s growing success. There is no way I could afford to buy all these supplies, but through regular donations and through the generous support of the people who buy my art to keep things running, it all just keeps growing in reach and scope.
We ship across Canada to any remote community. On the website we have a list of tabs that show the schools we’ve been supporting since 2013. The 2016/2017 year saw us reaching more than a dozen schools and communities, many of which are not yet on the website.
I depend heavily on social media to spread the word and to distribute urgent requests; for example, recently 5 homes were wiped out by fire in Iqaluit. Families are displaced but have wonderful supports in place while they begin a slow and expensive rebuild; in the meantime, the kids get pretty bored without the things that they used to have around to kill the boredom and art can help keep that in check.
I have recently begun a teaching program to help Settlers gain a better understanding of Indigenous art and culture through the use of a program I’ve developed called “Earth to Sky”. I go into schools and use my artwork to tell some of the stories of how things are understood based on an Indigenous belief system. We go over words like “unceded” and “Algonquin”, “Medicine Wheel”, and “Medicine” so when conversations around Truth and Reconciliation are introduced in the classroom, both teachers and students have a better understanding of the language they’re using.
Children are often shocked when they hear about the challenges for youth their own age in remote communities. By the end of the program, they have a new appreciation for the challenges of First Nations youth and a new understanding about how to see things from an Indigenous perspective.
The Art For Aid Project will continue to collect art supplies, pay for shipping and will help bring a greater level of awareness for the many needs of our Canadian remote communities. We will work to elevate the youth voices of Canada’s First Artists and promote collaborative efforts between Elders, Wisdom Keepers, traditional craftspeople and remote youth.
Carrie: Can you please share a story that’s come from your work with Art for Aid?
A recent moment of pride for The Art For Aid Project is highlighting Jericho Mack, a young Indigenous artist from Peawanuck, Ontario. Jericho uses YouTube and social media to follow his sketchbook heroes and at 12, he’s creating amazing portraits and anime sketches with minimal tools…until now. The people who support The Art For Aid Project enabled us to purchase good tools for Jericho and ship more art supplies to his school.
Additionally, we reached out to two of Jericho’s heroes – Mark Crilley and SuperRaeDizzle – they reached back. We posted Mark’s reply for Jericho on our website. SuperRaeDizzle was going to send him a package.
The Principal of the Ma-Tah-Ha-Mao school has been vital to this student feature. We’re so grateful to her for supporting this collaboration.
Carrie: What do you wish more people understood about your work?
I think that I don’t need people to understand my work – if anyone takes the time to look at the state of some of our remote Indigenous communities they’ll quickly understand the drive to help youth to build pathways to success amid the poverty and myriad challenges they face. Art exploration begins and ends with art supplies. I would like people to make an effort to look closely at Canadian Indigenous youth artists, and begin listening to what they have to say about what they’re going to tomorrow. Their art will be fresh and relevant, traditional and spiritual; their art will tell their story but, as I said…it begins and ends with art supplies.
Carrie: What has been one hurdle you’ve overcome as a creative and how did you navigate that problem?
I have yet to figure out how to disarm my greatest foe – time.
I have to paint, draw, explore – I don’t feel well if I can’t create when I need to. I like to work late at night – if possible, all night. I get frustrated at having to sleep. Fear of the self is the biggest battle for me I think. Creation is big and messy and beautiful and I wish I had more time to dive in, but my minutes and hours of connecting art supplies with students, supporting remote communities, exploring new ways to do that, making network connections, it is all so exciting when I put those boxes in the back of my car to ship out.
Carrie: What strategies do you use to help yourself when you feel “stuck?”
My husband, Steady Freddy, knows exactly what to do when I’m stuck. He packs up the family and leaves the house for the weekend to visit relatives. It’s a guaranteed “unstick”. With no responsibility to anything other than the paint and paper, I can open up all the mental doors wide and the flow of energy changes. I have always valued my time in silence; in a world without noise, it’s good to be inside one’s head for a few days.
Carrie: What is one creative resource you can’t live without?
Birthday cake. (I’m kidding).
My creative rituals are a resource that sustains me. My camera is very important to me and maybe I wasn’t kidding all that much about the birthday cake.
Carrie: Who/what inspires you?
Kids that wake up to houses that have frost on the floor and are grateful to have wood to stoke the fire, kids who begin hanging out at the corner of the school a week before it even opens in September because they love school that much, teachers who do all they can to bring the best of themselves to remote communities. The many stories, teachings and insights from Elders and Wisdomkeepers that have graced my eyes and ears over the past 25 years inspire me.
People who stand up against bullies inspire me, warriors who stand in the freezing cold river to face water cannons and rubber bullets inspire me, Christi Belcourt and Cindy Blackstock inspire me. Families who continue to fight for their missing sisters and daughters, and people who say they want to make a difference and then just go make a difference – they inspire me too.
Carrie: What does the word artist mean to you?
We are all artists; even the ones who say they aren’t. Art is about perspective, about perception and about personal filters. If a person can offer someone a smile so brilliant as to lighten their step, is this not art in a living and breathing form?
The word artist doesn’t truly have meaning to me other than to define someone who fits into a specific box that allows the world to define who they are in the social scheme of things. I’ve met bullshit artists who could verbalize a masterpiece – it’s all subjective and I believe the word “artist” is a title we give to people who utilize creative energy to manifest something; that something creates for us all, a bridge to another way of understanding the heart and mind.
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