Sturgeon Falls has been graced with a new mural on the fence at the public fountain on King Street. Juliana “Jules” Armstrong, a teacher at Whitewoods Public School, designed and painted the 3-panel mural along with students from her grades 7 & 8 Anishinabemowin (Ojibwe) language class. Jules is a member of Nipissing First Nation and has already carved out a solid reputation not only as an artist, but as an author, illustrator, teacher and language keeper. On August 10th the class mural was mounted as part of the Sturgeon Falls Beautification mural endeavour coordinated by Gayle Primeau. The work depicts the Seven Grandfather Teachings, the virtues underlying traditional Anishinaabe spiritual guidance.
This is Jules Armstrong’s first such large cooperative endeavour, but she is known far and wide for encouraging others in their artistic aspirations. “I have done a few projects, but mostly commissions, private commissions or workshops, painting workshops with different organizations all over Ontario,” she says, “kind of like Paint Nights, but my style.” Her style is bold and colourful, thematic and evocative of traditional motifs.
In 2021, she had a book published that revolves around some key words in Anishinabemowin, titled “This is what I’ve been told”. Her mural reflects the same style as the illustrations in her book. “The publication company approached me with an idea and I was originally just the illustrator. But things fell through with the author so I ended up writing a story to go with the images because they were already finished. I changed the story and added my ideas to the pictures. It worked out because as I was painting them and creating them, I had my own ideas and thoughts of what was being put on the canvas.”
She continues, “The reason it as called “This is what I’ve been told” is because in our culture when we’re giving or receiving teachings, often Elders will start off with those words – This is what I’ve been told. It’s not something they’ve made up … We might be learning about strawberries, let’s say, but across our nation it might be a little different in one community from another community. It doesn’t make it wrong or right, it just makes it part of their territory or their teachings, so it’s important to start with “This is what I’ve been told”. You can only pass on what you’ve been given.”
She herself had the experience of living in many communities as she grew up and, consequently, has been exposed to many of the variations on traditional themes, finding the core values within them all. “I was born in Attawapiskat, then we moved to Christian Island, Beausoleil FN, and I worked in the north where I lived at Kasabonika Lake FN, North Spirit Lake FN… Along my journey I’ve picked up many teachings, very similar, and I wanted to share that with others in a way that was good for everyone at all ages.”
As a teacher at Whitewoods in the Anishinabemowin language program, Armstrong finds it important to share the teachings embedded in the language. “It’s one of the most important aspects of my life. It wasn’t always the case to be proud of who I was and it wasn’t until I had my own children that it became of daily importance. I needed to live this life and be true to who I was so my children would never have to walk with shame or not being proud of who they are; [I wanted] to change the story for them.” She explains further, “I went to school, my entire elementary school was on reserve, and there was nothing in our school that represented who we were as Indigenous people other than some of the staff who were Indigenous. There was nothing that supported being a proud Anishinaabekwe – it takes a toll. It took me until I was 31 to decide this was important to me and I had to grab a hold of it before I lose it.”
This new mural in Sturgeon Falls is a cultural and spiritual expression, guided by traditional teachings and traditional art forms, delivered in spectacular colours that both soothe and enliven the spirit. It flows, it moves, and it is centred. Jules Armstrong describes how it proceeded. “It started out at home, the prep for it, priming it and stuff, but then we turned it into a class project, so they [the students] came up with ideas of what the design might look like, and then we put something together as a group. I ultimately sketched out the final image, but with their input, and then we played with colours, so everyone had the sample of the same image, and then they played with colours on their own. Then we brought them all back to the group and picked what patterning we would do, then put it on the plywood, sketched it out, and took turns painting. The reason it took so long is that we had 2 or 3 people working on painting while we were doing class assignments… I brought it in at Christmas and we finished, racing to the last day of school. We didn’t dedicate full class periods to it; it was a couple of times a week, here and there – a come and go as you want.”