Beadwork and Birch Bark: Artist Connie Kulhavy Paints a Path with Passion
"Passion is what creates the path for you," shares Connie Kulhavy, who grew up in Hay River in the Northwest Territories. Born to a Metis mother and a father of settler ancestry, her dad fished and hunted and her family lived off the land .”I feel like I'm still a beginner in my culture and knowledge,” she smiles. She’s been on a cultural learning journey, but she hasn’t been doing it alone. “I had all these guideposts and these wonderful people that helped me along the way,” she smiles.
Thinking back to the classroom where she felt the urge to teach the truth about the history of Metis people, she recalls the shame she felt in hearing the teacher read aloud from a textbook about how Louis Riel was a traitor who betrayed his country. “It planted a seed in me and that seed was I needed to share the truth of who we are,” she recounts. Now living in Edmonton, Kuhavy teaches her history and culture in schools and as an artist in residence.
She first moved to Edmonton at 17 and after reading a book called Halfbreed by Maria Campbell, she saw herself in it and it inspired her once more. She went back to school to graduate and volunteered teaching English as a second language, meeting people from a broad range of cultures and listening to their stories. Her students were immigrants or refugees and she learned how important stories are.
Later, She got married to a Frenchman and moved to Quebec City, learning to speak the language through lessons over nine years. Her daughters were raised in a home where their father spoke French and their mother spoke English. In 2000, they moved to Nanaimo and she started to look for more professional work after having been a stay at home mom.
She went into a school and an Indigenous principal told her she would need to shadow someone for six months to be hired in. Kulhavy learned from a mentor, one of the best in the district. Lesson planning and delivery and organizational skills were some of the things she learned before she was hired.
Working with three French immersion schools and one Francophone school every week, there was a big learning curve and she was still trying to learn her history and culture. She loved working with the students, planning, sharing and learning about the cultures. Eight years later, she worked on curriculum at the district level.
Eventually, after spending so much time on the intellectual aspects, she wanted to work with her heart and hands. She made friends with a Metis artist and they got a grant to interview Metis people across BC about their cultural practices. They attended an elders gathering and met a medicine man in a Metis community called Kelly Lake who gave her medicine from a birch tree.
As he placed it in her hands and prayed for her, she knew her life was about to change again. After returning to Nanaimo, her friends taught her to paint and she fell in love with birch trees. Another friend gave her a foam heart and some porcupine quills and she wasn’t sure what to do with them.
At a Metis festival, she learned to bead from Gregory Schofield, a poet, writer, professor and teacher of beadwork. She practiced what she learned and started to make beaded hearts based on the stories people would tell her, creating custom works for milestones like weddings or burials. She also sold her work in art galleries and museums.
Following her passion as an artist, she’s experimenting every day. She quit her job in 2015 to pursue her art full time. The risk paid off and Kulhavy has been busier than ever. She likes to encourage people to experiment to find their own interests like she did. “The more that you try different things, you will eventually find your path and what speaks to you…when you find those passions, and you're working in the space that you need to be, things start to flow a little easier,” she confides.
Life has its challenges, but she’s able to work through them with the confidence that she’s where she’s supposed to be. She uses gratitude and connection with others to work through life’s challenges, like when she was far from her family in Quebec and didn’t know the language. The experience helped her cultivate empathy and the experience of learning from each other.
Looking back, she wishes she had stayed in school and had more of an education and one that shared more about who she is as a Metis person. She’s working hard to make that change now as someone who teaches art in schools.
To maintain balance and take care of her mental health, she tries to take breaks and stop when she gets frustrated. Those moments of pause help her bring good energy into her work, whether it’s for a walk, getting fresh air outside or having a laugh with people in her circle. Creating better boundaries has been important to keep her workload manageable. She’s had to value her mental health and wellness by not taking on too much like she did when working in the French immersion and Francophone schools. Now, she makes time for family, friends, smudging, reading, and exercising compassion for herself and others.
“Sometimes we get so caught up in what we're doing. We forget that we that there's life to enjoy.”
Her advice for Indigenous youth is to try different things. “Sometimes it's those things that you try… that will spark those other things that will keep you going and motivated moving through,” she offers. She’s inspired by elementary school aged children who aren’t held back by the fear of failure. Kulhavy wishes students knew that it was okay to fail. “As an artist that's what I do. I fail all the time. But I keep working at it,” she continues. Mistakes and challenges are learning opportunities and she’s learning every day.
After all, passion is what created a path for her. Connie Kulhavy might still feel like a beginner in her culture and knowledge but she isn’t learning it all alone. With guideposts and wonderful people to help her along the way, she’s trying to do the same for Metis students today. She’s trying to make a new masterpiece of the education system, creating that representation she needed and sharing the beauty of her history and heritage.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this story.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.