Brian Kowichuk

Murals and Mirrors: Brian Kowikchuk Creates Art as Cultural Reflection in the North

“I remember growing up as a child drawing on the walls of my bedrooms, and worrying about getting in trouble. Now I'm actually building murals in my hometown,” muses Inuvik-based muralist Brian Kowikchuk. He was raised in the Northwest Territories and lived in Tuktoyaktuk before moving a decade ago. Growing up in foster care, he was trying to figure out his identity as an Inuvialuit person and used art to express himself. He wants to share that gift with others. 

As creative lead for some of Canada-Inuit Nunangat-United Kingdom research programs, he’s working on a mural project to bridge mental health and climate change through art. He is also, separately,  illustrating and writing a children’s book. Community engagement is his passion and flourishing as he looks into the intersections of mental health and art.

In grade 12, his art teacher inspired and encouraged him as she helped him apply to Emily Carr art school in Vancouver. “Once she saw the light, she just kept on trying to feed it. All it takes is one person to believe in you and you just keep walking, and then it sticks in your head... She was so much more confident in me than myself, and she planted a seed… Seeds always grow in the dark, so during my dark times, that seed grew, and I've been able to be me,” he recalls. 

Looking forward, he dreams of moving into a leadership role but doesn’t feel ready yet, wanting to be healthy in body, mind and spirit when he leads. He has a lot he wants to learn and he’s building the foundations and self-confidence he will need in the future. 

His advice for youth who want to make a difference like he does with art is “surround yourself with people who believe in you because it's very easy to get distracted… It's always okay to backslide… just always remember to get up. You'll soon learn that the right people that should be around you will be around if that's what you want.”

If he could give his younger self a message it would be, “It's okay to be sensitive. It's okay to feel.” He remembers how he used to gaslight himself that he shouldn’t be feeling things. To maintain mental wellness, Kowikchuk recommends listening to the people around you who can see you starting to slip. 

When it comes to leaving home to an urban setting, he encourages staying connected. “They say that home is where your heart is. Just make sure that you keep in touch with family no matter what, because it really is easy to feel isolated and lonely in the city… Everyone becomes strangers but we’ve got to remember that our best friends were strangers at one point.”

When he moved to Mexico for a year, he was in awe of the beauty and colour in contrast with the North which is often plunged in darkness. He dreams of adding colour to his community so the next generation can understand who they are by seeing it, hearing it and being part of it through art. He wants to share culture through his art.

Illustration by Shaikara David

His favourite types of murals are those made by Indigenous people for Indigenous people. “It wasn't too long ago our people were put into residential schools and our land was taken. It's really amazing to see mural work being done for and from our people, because that means we're slowly taking back our space. It's not too long ago, we’re fresh off the ice and fresh off the land so it's important for the next generations to understand who they are instead of who they were,” he reflects.

His advice to students who want to pursue mural work is to work on their craft weekly, advising, “There's no such thing as perfect; it takes a lot of practice.” Kowikchuk recommends looking into government funding for art projects and to start small and build towards bigger things, like he did. From drawing on walls as a child, to making paintings, drawing, doing painting classes, building to 20 foot by 24 foot murals and digital art, his work progressed. “It's not Snakes and Ladders, you actually need to go all the way, take it step by step,” he continues. 

He uses a program called Procreate on his ipad with a stylus which allows him to scale his work in size. A billboard printer in Hay River called Poison Graphics prints his work on eight by four panels that can be assembled to make a durable and weatherproof twenty by twenty-four mural. 

This technique offers an advantage over plywood and outdoor paint because Northern weather only allows for that in the summer, whereas digital art can happen year round. Otherwise, he paints acrylic on canvases, often ordered through Opus. While he prefers to touch the brushes he buys, he researches on YouTube and Tiktok to figure out what will work best for his desired effect.   

Sharing his talents, Kowikchuk teaches painting classes for students through Connected North. Setting up his easel in front of his laptop, he demonstrates his techniques. He’s moving towards using a camera that will hover over his artwork and more easily capture it all so he can show how to mix and blend paint and which processes need drying periods. He’s working on a tutorial video to share with classes. 

He’s grateful for the opportunity to teach that he didn’t get to learn from growing up without the internet. Having an art teacher who inspired him planted seeds and started a fire of passion for the arts. He’s hoping to do the same through his work with Connected North. He wants to encourage youth, “If this interests you, don't stop. The danger is distraction. So just keep going.” 

He started off drawing on his bedroom walls and now Brian Kowikchuk is asked to make art all over his hometown. Using murals as mirrors for Northern youth to see themselves in his expression, his paintings have become a form of reflection. He’s hoping they can see a future in art in his creations, building a better tomorrow stroke by stroke.  

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    Inuit
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  • Province/Territory
    Northwest Territories
  • Date
    January 23, 2024
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  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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