Blackfoot artist Kalum Teke Dan with students from Calgary’s St. John XXIII School where Dan just completed his mural Water is Life (background). Photo courtesy St. John XXIII School

Artist’s mural brings life to Calgary school

  • March 27, 2022

Prolific Blackfoot painter Kalum Teke Dan’s latest residency has been at St. John XXIII School in Calgary, where for over a month he’s been sharing his art and culture with students from kindergarten to Grade 9.

Brought in by the school with grant support from the Calgary Catholic Education Foundation, he’s just put the final touches on a mural project that will be on display in the school’s learning commons library. The theme for the piece is Treaty 7 — an agreement between the Crown and several, mainly Blackfoot, First Nation band governments in southern Alberta.

A special experience for the students, they collaborated with Dan on ideas until he landed on the mural concept, Water is Life.

In consultations with the Grade 9 students, they talked about having a strong female presence which is represented by the powerful imagery of an Indigenous woman in the mural. It also includes images of the buffalo, eagle, a mountain scene and trees.

“In our culture we’re raised to respect our mothers and grandmothers,” said Dan. “In the image I have a woman where her hair is turning into the river. Women are givers of life and the water is life, so all things feed off the rivers and the waters.”

The creation of the Water is Life mural has been taking place in the school’s auxiliary gym allowing classes, individual students and staff to come in as he works, to interact, ask questions and see the progress.

A public speaker, workshop leader and educator, Dan, principal Bradley Sanesh says, was a great fit for the school and a blessing to have in residence. Having him onsite, doing what he does with his paintbrush and sharing organically with students, created a natural learning experience for them to engage with the knowledge, art and story behind the art and artist himself.

“I think whenever we’re talking about acts of reconciliation, we need to enter into them in an authentic dialogue where we can have really open learning, good listening and opportunities for reflection followed by action,” said Sanesh. “Kalum has been explaining different parts of the story behind the art, which has such great meaning and Indigenous knowledge. He and the students are also having very relational conversations about likes, dislikes, other artists and all those (questions) that elementary and junior high school kids ask. The biggest part has been creating an environment where that dialogue and that learning can happen.”

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s Dan was often the only Indigenous student in his school and racism left its scars. Through all the prejudice, he says his pride in his Indigenous identity was stolen away. He is happy to see the intentional Indigenous cultural awareness through updated school curriculum and school art projects like this, something that did not exist when he was growing up.

“Students have been coming in and talking to me and some of them on their own without the teacher, maybe leaving school at the end of the day and they just want to come in and look or talk,” said Dan. “A bunch of kids will come at the end of the day just before the buzzer goes off and then just hang around and talk. They tell me that they really love the painting, and they feel proud. Some of the students aren’t even native and they feel proud that I’m doing the painting.”

Dan has seen racism and prejudice break down a lot of people in the Indigenous community. Through the strength of his mother, a long time city hall employee, Indigenous relationships fostered throughout the years and the tool of art to express himself, his pride today is strong. It has meant so much to him to be able to help foster that sense of pride in a new generation of young people. He hopes the legacy of the mural will inspire people to embrace the fullness of who they are, culture and all.

The project has been a meaningful experience for all the students, particularly Indigenous students, where it has brought a sense of pride in seeing their identity and culture celebrated in this way. The project is the keystone piece in the school’s library display which will feature a number of commissioned pieces representing various Indigenous nations. This will include a Salish carver working on a cedar pole, working in collaboration with the Glenbow Museum in Calgary for representation of Inuit soapstone carvings and a woodlands artist who will be producing various furniture pieces.

A diverse school, St. John XXIII is situated in an area of the city with a significant number of newcomers to Canada. Having a place within the school building that celebrates different Indigenous nations, and the common teachings amongst them, helps to authentically expose new Canadians to these nations, says Sanesh.

Sanesh believes projects like this are an important part of the journey towards fostering healing and reconciliation through Catholic education.

“Within Catholic education we have a responsibility to work on bringing about the Kingdom of God here on Earth,” said Sanesh. “Opportunities like this for authentic dialogue, relationship and understanding, I think, are moving us in the direction that we need to go to do that for all our students within Catholic education.”

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