Native artists guide students in creating meaningful mural


Our Lady of Sorrows School (OLS) is boasting a new indoor mural in their resource room, created by artist Michael “Cy” Cywink of Wikwemikong F.N. and his helper Gerry Ranger of Wendake F.N., along with several students at the school. Cywink has been doing interactive mural work in the school system since 1980 when he started with the Toronto School Board. “At that time, it was not a specific theme. The theme now is “Water is Life”, and when we look at the conditions all around the world, water is the main necessity that’s being neglected. Right here in Canada some reserves are in third world poverty; kids have grown up never tasting fresh water,” says the artist.

The mural is built up around water, including many clan/dodem animals that live in or near water. “What I try to do in all my work is to have it all flowing; the land is flowing – the yellow sunset is flowing down to the land and the water. The two elders by the lodge show the movement and flowing of knowledge and wisdom that is being shared in life experiences. If you look at the dragonflies, they have little faces on them. That’s symbolic of everything in Creation has a spirit, not to make it look like a dragonfly. The intention is that there’s a spirit within all of Creation. You’ve got a happy frog on a lily pad. I was sharing with some students this morning, that’s a happy frog! Look at the size of strawberry! And the lodge is the rainbow colours, and that’s to include all the youth that are two-spirited, to bring them into the story.”

Cywink has noticed a huge shift in recent years in bringing Native culture and traditions into schools, which formerly rejected the traditions of his people – a complete flip in attitudes. “It’s very rewarding,” he says. “And working with Gerry on these. When we were as young as these kids, there was no one like us around. Native culture wasn’t even allowed… I love working with the kids – we get energized by them. We see the light shining in their eyes with what they are achieving as the project goes on to the finished piece. It’s all rewarding, a win-win situation for all.” Gerry Ranger comments, “Especially with COVID, they’ve all been cooped up. This allowed them to have constructive play. Even in schools there were lots of restrictions. They need constructive play, and it’s healing – the colours are healing.”

OLS is noted for having a relatively large population of Indigenous children attending, and a quick look around shows that the school has been making concerted efforts to accommodate the needs of Indigenous classmates, through artwork, a Four Directions circle, historical items, hand drums, and this latest endeavour of involving students in creating a mural with Indigenous themes. “What really makes the difference,” says Cywink, “is having more Native educators to come into the school to address the issues of culture to the students in this kind of setting, because they might not get it at home, and they might not get the authenticity in school.” 

The artists were in residence for three and a half days, from May 31 to June 3, starting with an outline on the wall, having students fill in those spots, and building up the layers of the painting under their guidance. Ranger says, “You could see the calming effect it had on them, could see in their faces the accomplishment. We actually did that!” All the while the children were engaged and concentrating on the artwork, they also received teachings around the various elements. Cywink expounds, “The turtle with baby inside – I was sharing with them that as human beings we’re very symbolically like the turtle; when we’re in fear we withdraw within ourselves. With the turtle that’s a natural environment they can go into and still come out of. For human beings we can get lost and stuck… In that design it’s basically the movement – also representing Turtle Island; Mother Earth in a sense is Turtle Island. In our culture – if you take the word Earth and re-arrange the letters you have the word Heart – so Mother Earth is looked at as the heart of the universe. We have [a map of] Manitoulin on the wall – Manitoulin Island is looked at as the heart of Turtle Island – well, by everybody on Manitoulin Island!” 

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