In a collaboration between students and Indigenous artists, a new series of murals at Mitchell Woods Public School will pass on Indigenous knowledge for generations of students to come.
Michael “Cy” Cywink is an Odawa Anishinaabe artist, author, curator and muralist from the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, Manitoulin Island and the Odawa nation.
Gerry Ranger, Cywink’s art assistant and friend, is a Huron-Wendat artist and development social worker from Wendake, Que.
Together, they travel to different schools around the province to lead art projects that aim to teach cultural appreciation from a First Nation perspective. Before painting, Cywink will share Indigenous stories with the students before working with them on the murals.
“I look at art as a gift from the creator, so if I try to hoard it, that gift will be taken from me very fast,” said Cywink, “But if I share it, it can only enhance.”
On Monday, Cywink and Ranger came to Guelph to work with two classes of grade eight students to create eight murals based on the Seven Grandfather Teachings. For this project, Cywink had the students choose images from his work, and after choosing, they then worked together to create the layout of the murals and paint them.
The murals show seven animals; bear, turtle, eagle, buffalo, wolf, beaver and sabe. In order, these animals represent characteristics of courage, truth, love, respect, humility, wisdom and honesty. A final mural, painted by Cywink, Ranger and teachers from the school, will have the title on the project, which is ‘A Teaching Path.’ Once finished, these murals will hang in the school’s front foyer.
“Each piece has its own story,” said Cywink, noting together they all share similar themes relating to the environment and hope for survival.
By working on these murals in groups, Cywink said students applied the seven lessons into action, including stepping up to help each other and work together.
“There’s a love within the whole group to help each other," he said, noting the sparkle in their eyes when they see the results of their hard work.
The murals are dedicated to all Mitchell Woods Public School students who graduated during the global pandemic, missing out on the traditional graduation experience.
“The kids are loving it, they’re having such a good time,” said Kelly Stronach, the Grade eight teacher who organized the project with Cywink, “Michael and Gerry are very engaging and know how to talk to the kids.”
Kayla Thai, one of the Grade 8 students who participated in the mural, said it was fun and exciting experience.
“Once we started working on it, it was really exciting, it was nice," she said.
Cywink has been creating wall murals with youth since the early 1980s, but since 2009, he has been doing these school projects with the support of the Ontario Arts Board, Indigenous Arts Projects Program.
I’ve reached hundreds of thousands of students," said Cywink, "I have students who were in Grade 6 that finished high school and said, ‘Hey Mr. Cy, do you remember when we did this mural over at the school? I bring my kids over there to see it, just so they know."
“That’s rewarding to me as an artist to have that recognition from those little people who are now parents themselves.”
Ranger agrees the most rewarding part of their work is seeing the students enjoy the process.
With the ongoing pandemic, he adds students need something creative and social like this project to focus on.
“These children have been locked up for two years because of COVID, and this is kind of a release spell for them," he said.
Lydia Hurley, another Grade 8 student, said she hopes that future students will see these murals and become interested in learning more about Indigenous experiences.
“I hope they learn the attributes to lead them through life,” she said.
After this project, Cywink said he plans to film a video about this experience with teachers and students who were involved. The video will go to the school board, which can then share it with other school boards or other schools under its wing.
For every new school they work with, Cywink said they're making history.
“Every school that I go to we’re making history in that school, because it's never been done before, we’re making history in that school community.”