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Cree mural artist Jerry Whitehead finds inspiration in Northern Lights and powwows

Whitehead
James Smith Cree Nation artist Jerry Whitehead has created many colourful murals.

Artist Jerry Whitehead quips that he and his friend, Richard Tetrault, might be the oldest mural painters in Canada. As Whitehead prepared to celebrate his 67th birthday on Saturday (February 24), he reveals that it all began on the James Smith Cree Nation reserve east of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

“I always tell people that I grew up in a different time,” Whitehead tells the Toronto Spark by phone. “We lived in log cabins. We had no electricity and no running water. So, we lived by candlelight.”

From a really young age, he and the other Cree kids had to do chores on the reserve. Some might haul in wood from the bush. Others would be assigned to start the fire in the stove to keep the cabin warm.

But the East Vancouver resident also recalls plenty of good experiences, especially during powwows.

“We used to look for money under the bleachers, so we can buy ice cream,” Whitehead says.

In those times, Whitehead felt truly free. Free to explore. Free from parental supervision. And free to enjoy the sense of community created by powwows and take in the Northern Lights.

This sense of being born free informs Whitehead’s artistic work to this day, including Looking Back. It’s on one of eight large Lunar New Year lantern šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énk Square on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

“The background in that lantern is my version of the Northern Lights,” Whitehead says.

This display is among The Lantern City‘s four Vancouver exhibitions.

Whitehead
Looking Back by Jerry Whitehead.

Whitehead shares insights with students

Whitehead mentions that when he was around eight years old, he bought a paint-by-numbers set, which ignited a lifelong love for making art. To this day, he enjoys the smell of oil paintings and the sensation of putting paint on canvas. And the vivid colours in Looking Back and his other works are inspired, in part, by the powwow dancers’ regalia on the James Smith Cree Nation reserve.

“I always go back every summer,” he says. “I reconnect with everybody all the time.”

Now, he shares his insights with students as an artist in residence with the Vancouver school board. In this role, he visits classrooms to offer workshops.

In partnership  with the Eastside Arts Society’s Studio 101 program, Whitehead even helped students from grades 4 to 7 at Strathcona and Xpey’ elementary schools design their own Lunar New Year lantern, which is also at šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énk Square.

He first taught the kids how to construct faces on black paper by using geometrical shapes to create a collage. Whitehead started by showing them how to make a forehead in the shape of a triangle. Then another shape would be used for the eyes, mouth, et cetera.

“It doesn’t have to be realistic,” the artist emphasizes. “They know it’s a face after they’re done.”

After that was completed, the children used their own imagination to create the hair and background. Then, the images were assembled on the lantern entitled Faces.

Whitehead
Jerry Whitehead helped students create Faces.

Murals in many locations

Whitehead lives near Commercial Drive in East Vancouver.

“I was also a single parent for many years, so I stayed home,” he reveals. “That gave me an opportunity to work on my art. I have three boys. They’re adults now.”

Over the years, he has painted many outdoor murals, including some in collaboration with Richard Tetrault.

One of them, Through the Eye of the Raven, is a 7,600-square-foot work co-created with Indigenous artists Richard Shorty, Sharifah Marsden, and Haisla Collins in 2010. It adorns the wall of a Vancouver Native Housing building at 456 East Hastings Street.

According to Whitehead, Tetrault is a masterful muralist.

“He just knows how to look at a wall and knows what looks good on that wall,” Whitehead says. “He’s got amazing style. I learned so much from him.”

Whitehead also worked with Tetrault, Eri Ishii, and Jun Yun on Radius Mural at the Firehall Arts Centre. Created in 2017 as a City of Vancouver Year of Reconciliation project, it highlights cultural links and connectivity between Aboriginal, Chinese, and Japanese cultures.

In addition, Whitehead has created murals at St. Paul’s Hospital and for the Vancouver Mural Festival, among other local commissions. His work can be seen at the intersection of Kingsway and East 12th Avenue and along Commercial Drive near the Croatian Cultural Centre. He’s also painted murals in other cities.

Video: Jerry Whitehead shows his work at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.

From residential school to art school

As Whitehead reflects on his life, he feels lucky to be celebrating his 67th birthday. In the late 1960s. he was sent to the Prince Albert (All Saints) Indian Residential School, which was run by the Anglican Church.

“It split up our family, but we all got back together as we got older,” Whitehead states.

For high school in Prince Albert, he had to board at people’s homes. Later, he learned about an art program operated by Saskatchewan Federated Indian College (now First Nations University of Canada), which is affiliated with the University of Regina. Whitehead enrolled in 1979 and graduated in 1983.

He followed that up by earning a bachelor of fine arts from the Nova Scotia College of Arts and Design.

“I’m just glad I made it this far,” Whitehead says as the interview draws to a close. “When you look back at your life—what you did to yourself and all the paintings and all the close calls you’ve had—oh man, it’s amazing! Now, I’m more careful.”

For more information on Jerry Whitehead, visit his website JerryWhitehead. Follow the Eastside Arts Society on Instagram @eastsideartssociety. Learn more about diverse communities from the Toronto Spark website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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Arts for Canadians Tomorrow Society created Toronto Spark to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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Arts for Canadians Tomorrow Society is grateful to be held on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples, that is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We acknowledge our privilege to be gathered on this land, and commit to work with and be respectful to the Indigenous peoples whose arts and stories inspire us to bring communities together.